The Department of Community Services is is working on reforming the social assistance program in what it's calling the biggest undertaking for the department in over 20 years, but some who work with the poor are worried.

"When you're talking about people on income assistance who the government doesn't usually put on the top of the list to help, then it's very worrisome," said Fiona Traynor, with Dal Legal Aid.

"I'm very concerned about the proposed changes mainly because we don't know what they are."

Evan Coole, another Dal legal aid employee, says the department is being secretive about its plan.

"They are not making any attempts that we can see to engage people who are on social assistance or community organizations that service people on social assistance to make these decisions," he said.

Will reforms mean more cuts?

The changes, when they come, will result in widespread reform. The department says it wants to modernize social assistance programs to ensure it's meeting the needs of Nova Scotians.

The department did makes some cuts to this year's budget and Traynor worries reform means more cuts. She also worries about the message the minister is sending with her comments about people and the length of time they remain on assistance.

"I heard a lot of stigmatizing and I hear a lot of encouraging the general public to believe that people on income assistance don't deserve what they get."

Traynor says there's already a stigma attached to people who receive assistance, even though a single person on assistance gets only $300 for shelter and utilities, and $255 for food, clothing and other necessities.

At Dalhousie University, Judy MacDonald, the interim director in the School of Social Work, said it's imperative those who use the system be consulted.

"It's the government making decisions. It's not the government in consultation. They're not talking to people with disabilities, they're not talking to single moms on assistance, they're not talking to people that know what it's like to live day by day in poverty," MacDonald said.

Concerns about disabled people

She is especially concerned about disabled people on assistance, who have added challenges and need help to become educated.

"People on assistance know what the issues are, people who serve the poor know what the issues are and if the government is sincere in wanting to build a better system, they should be talking to us," Coole said.

In an email to CBC, department spokesperson Lori Errington said, "We are in the early stages and consultation will be a key part of the path forward: the input of clients and stakeholders will be an essential part of our approach."

Errington said the goal of the restructuring is "simpler administration and sustainability, and social inclusion and self-sufficiency for our clients."