Benefits Reform Action Group N.S. reveals faces of welfare

The Nova Scotia Benefits Reform Action Group is trying to end stigma around social assistance in Nova Scotia by sharing photos and stories of the people who have lived through it and are living through it now.

Social media campaign aims to end stigma around social assistance

"I often wonder what they expected us to do to survive," wrote Robyn McNeil. "$495/month for myself and my son." (Benefits Reform Action Group N.S./Twitter)

"Welfare bums" — or how about "Welfare queens?"

Those are just a couple of the negative stereotypes a Facebook and Twitter campaign called #FacesOfNSWelfare is trying to fight.

It's also trying to persuade the provincial government to raise income assistance rates. Those rates have not increased in the two years since the McNeil government took office, while food prices have gone up more than three per cent in the last year alone.

The maximum a single person on welfare receives to cover rent, heat, and lights is $535 dollars a month — not enough to pay for an apartment at market rates in most communities.

Familiar faces

Cory Bowles, an actor best known for his work on The Trailer Park Boys, is one of the familiar faces taking part in the campaign. In his real life he was raised in a trailer by his mom, a single parent on welfare in Truro. 

"That incredible box of groceries I saw on more than one Christmas came from the food bank and much of what allowed me to enjoy a creative childhood and do some of the things we otherwise would have been unable to consider  — organized sports, art supplies, my encyclopedia collection — came from welfare," Bowles wrote.

"All of that money we are sometimes told is going to waste is going to many successful and inspirational people around us."

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      Actor Jackie Torrens, journalist Sheldon MacLeod, and author and entrepreneur Barb Stegemann are other well-known personalities who are participating in the #FacesOfNSWelfare campaign to challenge the stigma associated with receiving income assistance.  

      "Often if people don't have personal experience, or don't know someone on assistance, all they have to go on is stereotypes," says Evan Coole, a community worker for Dal Legal Aid.

      "Those stereotypes are that folks on welfare or disability are cheating the system or trying to get out of working."

      Coole says, in his experience, those stereotypes are largely negative and untrue.

      He's backed by Barb Stegemann, an author and the founder of a perfume business called The 7 Virtues.

      Stegemann grew up on welfare in Antigonish County after her father left the family and her mother raised her and her sister, a medical specialist.

      "My mom was a single mom on welfare," says Stegemann.

      "She had a mental illness. Sixty per cent of people living on income assistance in Nova Scotia have a disability or mental illness. And they can't live on the level of income assistance they get. It's not possible."

      Stegemann says she would still be in poverty if she hadn't managed to go to the University of King's College with the help of student loans she paid off at the age of 34.

      She jumped at the chance to participate in the project.

      "If there is anything I can do to empower another teenager living on welfare, it's to realize you have the right to come to the banquet, to be included, and that the only thing keeping you back is you. Show up, speak up," says Stegemann, who is a passionate advocate. "If you don't talk about it, you can't change it."  

      A physical fall leads to an economic tumble

      Aron Spidle also shared part of his story on #FacesOfNSWelfare.

      He has a masters degree in theology, volunteers with his church and until four years ago, he worked a job in the fast food business.

      Spidle says he was forced on to welfare after a fall down his front steps left him with crippling arthritis and migraines that made him unable to show up for work regularly.

      "Most people are just a pay cheque away from my position," says Spidle. "If someone had told me four and half years ago that I would be on income assistance now, I would not have believed them."

      "I would love to work. I didn't spend seven years in school and earn two degrees to be on social assistance. But the reality is I'm not the only one."  

      A new profile goes up every day on Facebook and Twitter.

      The social media campaign to change public attitudes and increase income assistance rates climaxes this Saturday morning, with a march beginning at 10:30 a.m. from St.Patrick's Church on Gottingen Street to the Provincial Legislature.

      Both the march and social media campaign are organized by th Benefits Reform Action Group, a project of Dal Legal Aid.

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