Anti-poverty activists across the province are calling for an overhaul of the Community Services Department and they want to be part of the process.

"We know — because we work on the ground, we work front lines — that the government is not addressing poverty in this province," Fiona Traynor of Dalhousie Legal Aid Service said in an interview.

"We know that some of their plans will not address or alleviate poverty."

Put an end to discrimination

Dalhousie Legal Aid is one of 20 organizations from across Nova Scotia that signed a letter to the government calling for cabinet to address "systemic discrimination and collective punishment embedded in our income assistance system."

The move follows a recent decision from the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal condemning the department for cutting off assistance to an entire family when the father did not attend a job interview.

Community Services Minister Kelly Regan said that her department would implement the court ruling in its entirety and consider any other similar cases this year, of which there are about about 53, she said.

Community Services Minister Kelly Regan

Community Services Minister Kelly Regan says changes to the Employment Support and Income Assistance program are coming, and they will make a difference. (CBC)

While Regan said the system will change to reflect the ruling, it appears unlikely anything will happen retroactively, something Traynor and others call for in their letter.

"The law was interpreted a certain way before, there's now a new interpretation and we will be following that interpretation from now on," Regan said.

Traynor said when entire families are cut off from assistance because of the actions of one person it can create perilous circumstances.

"They are at risk of homelessness, their pharmacare is cut off, their personal allowance, which pays for their food and all their other provisions, is cut off," she said.

Transformation takes time

Since coming to power in 2013, the Liberals have resisted calls for quick and sudden changes to the Employment Support and Income Assistance program, favouring instead a process they refer to as transformation, a multi-year process to overhaul services.

On Thursday, Regan reiterated that it's a big and complicated system that can't be fixed with tinkering around the edges.

"We need some fundamental change here and we're taking the time to make sure we get it right," she said.

'Wholly and totally inadequate'

But Traynor said the transformation process is taking too long and rates are "wholly and totally inadequate." A government increase in 2016, which the Liberals heralded as the largest single increase in the province's history, amounts to about $20 a month per person.

"People are living below the poverty line, well below the poverty line," Traynor said. "People are suffering."

Colleagues across the province are seeing people who "are literally starving," Traynor said, who noted the majority of people on income assistance are classified as disabled.

Change is coming

Regan, who said circumstances for many Nova Scotia families have improved since the introduction of the Canada Child Benefit by the federal government, said announcements about changes to the provincial system that would make a difference for people are coming "very soon," although she said she couldn't be more specific.

"I just urge people to be patient; I know it's easy for me to say that, but it's coming," Regan said.