Nova Scotia

N.S. income assistance rates rise, but amounts remain 'criminal,' says advocate

As of Jan. 1, the Nova Scotia government increased the maximum income assistance rate by two per cent across the board, but five per cent for some recipients. Anti-poverty advocates say that still leaves many people struggling.

Boost in assistance amounts still put many far below Canada's official poverty line

Jodi Brown is an anti-poverty advocate who lives in the Halifax area. (Shaina Luck/CBC)

Nova Scotians on income assistance will be receiving slightly more help this year, but that amount still puts many far below Canada's official poverty line.

"It's criminal. I have one word for the government and that's criminal," said Jodi Brown, an anti-poverty activist who spent close to a year on income assistance in 2015.

"My meal of choice most times was popcorn, or tea and toast. I sat in the dark a lot to try to save on electricity."

Brown said she knows many people on income assistance struggling to pay for food or medication, and who are becoming socially isolated.

In November 2019, there were 23,627 Nova Scotian households on income assistance, said the Department of Community Services.

As of Jan. 1 the provincial government increased the maximum income assistance rate by two per cent across the board, although some recipients will get five per cent.

It also began to distribute the maximum amount each family qualified for. Previously, some families did not receive the maximum amount, only the lesser amount of their rent.

Many families on income assistance struggle to pay for the cost of food and other essentials. (CBC)

Brown, who is also a member of the Benefits Reform Action Group (BRAG), said the small raises to the rates in 2020 won't make a difference to those still on assistance.

"They're not going to be able to survive on that," she said.

The amount of income assistance each family qualifies for depends on how many people are in the family and whether they are renters, owners or boarders.

Previously, a couple with two children qualified for a maximum of $1,170 in assistance per month. Now the same couple will qualify for $1,193, an increase of two per cent. This works out to $14,316 per year.

Many households will receive between $10 and $40 more per month.

BRAG member Tim Blades receives income assistance and said the welfare transformation process that the province began in 2014 has been "smoke and mirrors."

Increase 'won't make a difference,' says recipient

"I'm getting $10 more a month," said Blades. "It won't make a difference at all in my life."

"People are fearful — and it's a fear grounded in reality — that with these increases, they will be clawed back somehow. Ten dollars is not going to make a difference in my life, especially because they reduced me $78 last year."

Blades said many people who are on income assistance try to help and support each other, even in minute ways.

"I coupon as much as I can. I'll grab coupons for items that I'll never buy or use, just so that I can pass them along to someone else," he said.

But as much as Blades tries to reduce his expenses, he finds it difficult to cover the costs.

A couple of months ago, he needed to buy new pants. As a larger man, Blades said he had a hard time finding a size that would fit him at a reasonable price. He found a pair that cost more than $30, which is a significant amount to spend out of his monthly budget.

"When you get down to your last pair of pants, you really got to start thinking about ... getting some clothes," he said.

Advocate Jodi Brown says people she knows on income assistance often struggle to pay for medication. (Elise Amendola/The Associated Press)

In 2018, the federal government released a national poverty reduction strategy that officially defined a "poverty line" in 50 regions around the country.

In Nova Scotia, that amount is defined as $35,256 to $39,430 for a family of two adults and two children, depending on where the family lives. For a single person living on their own, the poverty line is roughly half of that.

The number is calculated based on the cost of the same set of goods and services measured in each region.

Mark Culligan, a community legal worker with Dalhousie Legal Aid, said calculations done by prominent human rights lawyer Vince Calderhead show the real value of income assistance in 2020 is less than it was in 2014.

Inflation wiping away increases

"Even though there's increases that took effect on Jan. 1, inflation already ate away at the value of those increases before they ever came in," he said.

Culligan said the trend of inflation outpacing assistance increases has been happening since at least the early 90s.

"It's harder to be poor now than it was 30 years ago," he said.

Culligan believes income assistance should be set at the official federal poverty line and indexed to inflation.

Mark Culligan is a community legal worker at Dalhousie Legal Aid. (Dave Laughlin/CBC)

Joy Knight, the executive director of the province's Employment Supports and Income Assistance program, confirmed about 74 per cent of clients were previously receiving close to the new maximum rate, and those families will get the smaller increases of between $10 and $40. 

Knight said the department does have other programs to support those families in addition to income assistance.

"For many of those individuals that aren't seeing a large jump, they are availing themselves of other sources of income," she said.

"We would have over half of our caseload is considered able to work in some way. So we would hope that we are working with them, that we're creating the right supports and services to help them attach the labour market, whether that's full-time or part-time, to the best ability of that client."

Knight pointed to other measures such as more employment supports for young people, less clawback on earned income, an increased poverty reduction credit four times a year, an exemption on child support payments from income, and bus passes for clients in the Halifax Regional Municipality.

Knight said about 26 per cent of clients were receiving less than the maximum rate, and so raising them to the maximum means "significant" increases.

Some families in that situation include those in public housing, where rental rates range from $175 to $309 per month for those on income assistance. The deputy minister of housing, Nancy MacLellan, confirmed Tuesday her department has no plans to change those rates.

A public housing development in Spryfield, N.S., is shown in January 2020. (Dave Laughlin/CBC)

Brown, the anti-poverty activist, said the income assistance increase, coupled with no increase to the maximum rent, is helpful to those 2,600 families who both receive income assistance and live in public housing.

"A lot of people didn't know what was going to happen," she said. "I actually had one lady message and she was crying, saying that now she can afford food, now she can afford her electricity bill."

However, Brown said even for those receiving substantial increases, overall rates are still extremely low.