Joanne Bernard never promised it would be fast.

After she was elected to the Nova Scotia legislature in 2013 and appointed community services minister, Bernard set out to essentially overhaul the department and how it operates.

Dubbing the process "transformation," it is a three-pronged plan that includes reforming approaches to child welfare, assistance for people with disabilities and income assistance and employment support.

Outdated system, lots of demand

It was work that had to happen because "the system of the 90s shouldn't be the system of today," Bernard said in a recent interview.

As of last month, Nova Scotia had 26,550 income assistance cases, 1,040 kids in the care of the province and more than 1,300 people on the wait list for the disability support program.

But, as Bernard promised, change doesn't come quickly. Timelines attached to the work when it was announced ranged from 2019 for full changes to child welfare and income assistance and a decade to complete the overhaul of help for people with disabilities.

An idea beyond politics

Because all three aspects stretch beyond the length of a single mandate, there is no guarantee the work will be completed after the May 30 election.

Bernard, who hopes to be re-elected in Dartmouth North, said protecting kids, giving options to people with disabilities to live in their communities and getting the support people on assistance need is not a political idea.

"We cannot think in four-year terms when it comes to improving the lives of people in the province."

Work is long overdue

Stella Lord has watched the process unfold from the front lines.

Lord, who works with the Community Society to End Poverty, said while the process was slow to get going, she's pleased by the amount of consultation that's happened.

But she said it remains frustrating for people on income assistance to wait for changes to a system that's keeping them 40 to 60 per cent below the poverty line in some cases.

"There's no quick fix to this," she said. "I think now is the time to move forward on it."

What if the Liberals lose?

What would happen to the work if there is a change in government is unclear.

Tory Leader Jamie Baillie said to him "the best social program is still a job."

"There are real barriers for people entering the workforce," he said. "We've got to smash those down."

To that end, Baillie wants to see more efforts on enhancing the mental health system and improved rural transportation options. Partnering with community agencies to help people get off income assistance would also be a good step, he said.

Conservative Leader Jamie Baillie

Tory Leader Jamie Baillie says a job remains the best social program a person can be offered. He wants to help remove barriers that keep people from working. (Paul Poirier/CBC)

"We could do that today and actually get at some of these transformational issues that all Nova Scotians want to see."

NDP Leader Gary Burrill said he's troubled by the lack of demonstrable progress, particularly as it relates to poverty.

"The word 'transformation' in the world of the Department of Community Services for me has come to mean a kind of draggy, pokey inaction."

With an upward trend of people going to food banks and more people struggling to get by, Burrill said it's not at all an oversimplification to suggest putting more money into the system would change things.

NDP Leader Gary Burrill

NDP Leader Gary Burrill says his party is committed to helping people have enough to live on. (CBC)

"Poverty is not a disease that's incurable. Poverty is a condition for which there is a cure — the cure is a greater income."

For Burrill and the NDP, the issue comes down to people having enough money to live and all of that goes back to his plan to eventually increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

Starts at the top

Lord said she'd like to see poverty, in particular, become an issue that also involves the Health, Justice and Labour departments. She said it all needs to be guided from the very top — the premier's office.

"Whoever becomes premier has to say, 'Get on with it.'"