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Welfare recipients demand real consultation

by Robert Devet

Waiting for somebody to talk to. Anybody. Photo Robert Devet
Waiting for somebody to talk to. Anybody. Photo Robert Devet
People living in poverty proceed to the Community Services HQ to talk about their fears around a proposed social assistance transformation. Photo Robert Devet
People living in poverty proceed to the Community Services HQ to talk about their fears around a proposed social assistance transformation. Photo Robert Devet

KJIPUKTUK (HALIFAX) – About 25 people on welfare and their allies rallied at Victoria Park, just across the street from the Community Services headquarters in downtown Halifax.

People living in poverty gathered to protest what they feel is an uncaring department of Community Services.

They also demanded more input into the welfare transformation exercise that the department recently announced.

The rally was organized by the Benefits Reform Action Group (BRAG), a broad coalition of community groups and individuals who believe that the current welfare system is inhumane.

As always, the urgent need to raise welfare rates was a common theme. These rates, which land recipients well below the poverty line, have not been adjusted for cost of living increases since the Liberal government took office two years ago.

Recently Community Services minister Joanne Bernard told social assistance recipients not to expect an increase next year either.

“Raise the rates, and the shelter allowance is way too low,” Bonnie Barrett told the crowd. Barrett is chair of the Halifax chapter of ACORN Nova Scotia.

While the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Halifax is $650, we only get $535. That is not enough. That's taken out of other things like food, clothing, and medication,” Barrett said. “I am on assistance myself, on disability, and it is just outrageous, I don't have enough for food.”

Recently Community Services announced that it can no longer sustain the way it delivers its services, and engaged in a series of province-wide consultations with stakeholders.

Yet the changes the department contemplate and the changes people on assistance are asking for do not align.

What's more, people on welfare feel out of the loop.

“This so called consultation was actually an information session,” said Amy Moonshadow, chair of the Community Advocates Network.

“People with the lived experience of poverty do not feel that have been given a voice to say what's going on with them. We feel that this reform is a done deal,” Moonshadow said.

Soft-spoken Aron Spidle, recently featured in the Jackie Torrens documentary My Week on Welfare, related how his latest review has resulted in further deductions from his already meager special needs allowance.

“Everything is being questioned to the nth degree. I don't blame my caseworker, but the excessive and ridiculous bureaucracy to which she must answer,” Spidle said.

Many more people on welfare wanted a chance to speak, and all were given an opportunity.

When the speeches were done, members of the group proceeded to the Community Services reception area in the Lord Nelson building.

They wanted to present a letter with feedback on the consultation session to Sandy Graves, the executive director of Employment Support and Income Assistance.

The letter argues that incomes of people on welfare were much lower than the department suggested during the consultation.

As well, the focus on employment ignores that the vast majority of people affected are ill or disabled, the letter states.

Rather than raise obstacles the department should make it easier for its clients to pursue an education.

And the department should re-open rural offices to ensure equal services for rural people living in poverty, the letter continues.

A commissionaire told the group that Sandy Graves was out of town, and that no other bureaucrat at the department's headquarters was able to talk to the group.

Police arrived just when the group headed out the door.

Click here for more coverage of Community Services and social assistance issues.

Follow Robert DeVet on Twitter


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Topics: Poverty
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