Nova Scotia

Provincial government without answers as concerns about N.S. poverty increase

Almost 10 months after expressing surprise at the results of a Statistics Canada report that showed a jump in Nova Scotia’s child poverty rate, the provincial government still cannot explain the cause of that increase.

NDP calls for 'meaningful' increase in income assistance, $15/hr minimum wage

School breakfast programs, which operate at almost all schools in Nova Scotia, are well used. (CBC)

Almost 10 months after expressing surprise at the results of a Statistics Canada report that showed a jump in Nova Scotia's child poverty rate, the provincial government still cannot explain the cause of that increase.

The report, released in February, showed the poverty rate for people younger than 18 in 2017 was 17 per cent, up from 14 per cent the year before. Nova Scotia was one of only two provinces to see an increase in the rate, although Quebec's increase was by less than a percentage point and its actual rate is less than half of Nova Scotia's.

At the time, the then-deputy minister of Community Services said the government would be reaching out to Statistics Canada to try to determine what was happening with the rates, especially considering the hundreds of millions of dollars flowing to Nova Scotia families via the federal child-tax benefit.

Although the department has been in contact with Statistics Canada, it remains unclear what, if anything, officials have determined.

Despite multiple requests for an interview, officials with Community Services would not make someone available and instead provided a statement noting the sample size "may not be representative of the circumstances of the entire population."

"We continue to work with Statistics Canada to improve their data quality for Nova Scotia and we look forward to their next update in February 2020," the statement said.

In an email, a Statistics Canada spokesperson said the agency reviewed the poverty rates for couples with children in Nova Scotia at the request of the province.

"After a thorough examination these rates remain as originally published," said Kossi Djani.

Rates getting worse in some areas

Trish McCourt, executive director of the Tri-County Women's Centre, said service organizations in the Digby-Yarmouth-Shelburne area are not seeing improvements when it comes to poverty rates, particularly in the towns.

"[Rates] I would say either have stayed the same or maybe gotten a little worse in some areas," she said in a phone interview.

McCourt said people asking for help need assistance with the usual items, such as rent, food and utility bills, but residents of rural communities can face additional barriers when it comes to transportation costs.

"Living in our area it's pretty difficult to get to all the services you need without some form of transportation aside from being on foot or even the limited transit system that we have." 

Dartmouth North MLA Susan LeBlanc, the NDP's community services critic, said she's concerned government officials are "burying their heads in the sand."

Darmouth North MLA Susan LeBlanc is the NDP critic for Community Services. (CBC)

LeBlanc said her office sees people on a daily basis who are facing growing problems when it comes to poverty.

"People are suffering," she said in an interview. "They are not able to make ends meet. These children are not going to school with food in their bellies or coming home to food."

LeBlanc said school breakfast programs in her district are busy, the local library has started providing hot lunches and the local food centre sees strong uptake for its family supper nights.

Further testing people's limits is the pervasive challenge of skyrocketing rents in the Halifax and Dartmouth area, said LeBlanc. People are facing a financial breaking point as landlords either raise rents or renovate buildings so they can eventually increase rents.

"We're seeing that more and more often and I don't know what to tell people. It's a real crisis."

Minimum wage not enough

McCourt said service and community organizations are struggling to keep up with the demand for help and she worries some groups might be reaching a breaking point of their own.

The local fuel bank is facing a shortage of money and manpower that could jeopardize its future, she said.

LeBlanc criticized the government for not acting fast enough or decisively enough to address the problem.

There needs to be a "real and meaningful" increase to income assistance rates, the government must consider rent control and it's time to move toward a $15 per hour minimum wage, said LeBlanc. Nova Scotia's minimum wage is $11.55. It will go up by 55 cents on April 1 of each of the next two years.

"Folks who are working at minimum wage jobs right now, even when there's two parents working, they still can't make ends meet."

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