Nova Scotia

Human rights lawyer calls out province over social assistance rates

Five years ago the province launched a transformation program for the Community Services Department aimed to improve outcomes. But a Halifax-based human rights lawyer says it hasn't worked. He said the purchasing power for people on social assistance has gone down.

Minister says 'it's not only about the rates' as government tries to tackle poverty

Lawyer Vince Calderhead says the province's social assistance rates are going down when adjusted for inflation. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

Five years ago the province launched a transformation program for the Community Services Department aimed to improve outcomes.

But a Halifax-based human rights lawyer says it hasn't worked. He said the purchasing power for people on social assistance has gone down.

Vince Calderhead appeared before the legislature's law amendments committee Monday to express concerns that the 2019-20 budget doesn't go far enough to help people in need.

He provided numbers to show efforts might actually be headed in the wrong direction.

Calderhead, a lawyer at Pink Larkin, presented a document showing the difference in assistance rates in 2014 at the start of the program and for March 2020, when an increase is scheduled.

Adjusted for inflation, a single adult without disabilities sees a decrease of $10.26 a month, or 1.6 per cent. A single adult with disabilities sees a decrease of $5.70 a month, or 0.6 per cent.

The difference is even higher for families.

'Those are not better outcomes'

Calderhead's calculations show the rates adjusted for inflation for a single parent with two children drop by $57.17 per month.

For a couple with two children, it goes down by $70.34 per month. Those are 5.7 and 5.0 per cent decreases, respectively.

"That's staggering that the province would knowingly do that," Calderhead told the committee.

"Look at these numbers and you'll see that those are not better outcomes. They're worse, in some cases dramatically worse outcomes."

Calderhead said the province should at least be keeping rates in line with the federal government's market basket calculation — a measure of low income based on a specific basket of goods and services.

"And so there is no question that if there is an agreed-to poverty line, social assistance rates simply can't leave someone lower than that line," he said in an interview.

Community Services Minister Kelly Regan says her department has taken a variety of steps to try to help people receiving social assistance. (Craig Paisley/CBC)

Community Services Minister Kelly Regan said assistance rates are just one part of the transformation process.

"We're doing a number of different things all taken together to increase people's incomes," she said in an interview.

That includes providing bus passes for people and their families and putting everyone who receives the standard household rate at the maximum amount for which they're eligible.

There are also leadership programs for young people, summer jobs, bursary programs and enhanced avenues to get people to community college.

"All of those things that speak to the root causes of poverty," said Regan.

"So, it's not just about the increases, there's also other financial things that go into it as well — services that aren't reflected in that."

'It's not only about the rates'

Regan also pointed to the province's poverty reduction plan, which sees her department fund different community programs in hopes of finding ideas that can be expanded.

One recent pilot project saw menstruation products made available for free through the Sheet Harbour Sexual Health Centre to women and girls who expressed a need. The minister said her department is evaluating those results now to determine next steps.

The minister also highlighted changes to the social assistance wage exemption, which allows people to earn more money before a clawback begins.

"The rates are important, but it's not only about the rates," she said.

Calderhead said there is relevant human rights law through the United Nations, known as the international covenant on economic, social and cultural rights, that applies to the situation.

Standards going in the wrong direction

"Two years ago, the Court of Appeal for Nova Scotia cited that covenant and, in the course of citing it, it didn't simply say that Canada, as a signatory, has these obligations; it said Nova Scotia has these obligations."

Those obligations include that everyone have an adequate standard of living, and Calderhead said that standard has been going in the wrong direction for years for people receiving social assistance.

"That direction in human rights law is called regression," he said. "In other words, we're in violation of the human rights obligations that Canada has and, more particularly, that Nova Scotia has."

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About the Author

Michael Gorman is a reporter in Nova Scotia whose coverage areas include Province House, rural communities, and health care. Contact him with story ideas at michael.gorman@cbc.ca