Nova Scotia

Advocates fear new income-assistance policy could bring 'greater levels of poverty'

Anti-poverty advocates are raising concerns about a new regulation that could reduce the income assistance paid to some people in poverty by 20 per cent.

Community Services can now reduce income assistance by 20% due to dissatisfaction with employment efforts

Brenton Sparks and his family were cut off income assistance when he missed two employment-related meetings. A court ruling that said Community Services cannot cut off an entire family led to the current 20 per cent reduction alternative. (Paul Palmeter/CBC)

Anti-poverty advocates are raising concerns about a new regulation that could reduce the income assistance paid to some people in poverty by 20 per cent. 

"It's going to reduce these families to even greater levels of poverty than they already experience," said Claire McNeil, a lawyer with Dalhousie Legal Aid who represented some of the parties in the legal case that spurred the regulation change. 

The new regulations came into effect on March 1.

Prior to the changes, the Community Services Department dealt with people who it deemed were not making proper efforts to find work by cutting off their assistance completely for six weeks. 

Now, if a caseworker decides someone on assistance isn't trying hard enough to find work, the department will reduce the money it gives them by 20 per cent. 

That reduced rate can continue as long as the person is found to be "non-compliant" although according to the department, full funding can resume as soon as the person and their case worker are able to agree on how to resolve the issue.

Brandon Grant, the province's executive director of employment supports and income assistance, said the regulation is about finding a "balance" between income support and employment. 

"This is a policy that we try to apply as a point of last resort, where we're not seeing engagement from folks, we aren't seeing the forward momentum in which folks are making an effort to achieve independence," he said. 
Claire McNeil, a lawyer with Dalhousie Legal Aid, says the new regulations can result in a lengthy reduction in income assistance. (Craig Paisley/CBC)

Grant said the 20 per cent number was chosen because it is "less punitive" than the previous approaches, and because a percentage reduction is fairer to families of different sizes rather than cutting off assistance for a period of time.

The current shelter allowance for one person renting a dwelling is $300 per month. Some people may also receive a personal allowance of $275 per month for other needs. 

If the 20 per cent penalty were applied in such a case, that person would see their monthly assistance drop from $575 by $115, to a total of $460 in assistance per month. 

Penalty can be indefinite

McNeil said she does not believe the department has sufficient proof that people whose income assistance is cut will return to employment. 

"This is not evidence-based, that somehow this is going to improve outcomes or you know, the department's going to be able to say 'well, we got more people out in the workforce by imposing these types of financial penalties,'" she said. 

McNeil is also concerned about the length of time a person's assistance could be reduced. 

"Now the department can impose indefinite periods during which these penalties can be imposed. So that's an area in which we're very concerned. They've actually made the penalty more onerous," she said. 

Court decision

The regulation change came about because of a 2017 decision by the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal, which ruled the Department of Community Services could not suspend payments to a family of five after the father, Brenton Sparks, failed to attend a meeting with an employment counsellor. 

Sparks and his family successfully argued that suspending payments for six weeks effectively penalized his wife and three daughters, who violated no regulations. He learned of the recent change from his lawyer, Vince Calderhead. 

"I thought it was a joke, to be honest," said Sparks. "It's bad enough that people who are on income assistance barely get enough money to survive from month to month."

Sparks said at the time his family's assistance was cut off in 2015, they were receiving roughly $900 a month, which was not enough for them to live on. He believes that reducing such rates by 20 per cent would make the situation worse. 

"Unfortunately, there's people that need this assistance. To take that from them is inhumane," he said.  
Brandon Grant, executive director of the employment support and income assistance program, says it is preferable to reduce income assistance by a percentage rather than cut it off completely for 'non-compliance.' (CBC)

Sparks said his family was cut off when he was unable to make an employment meeting twice: the first time, one of his daughters had been struck by a utility trailer and he was with her at the hospital. The second time, he had a meeting with a credit union regarding funding for a start-up business. 

"I went to see about getting a business loan, instead of going to this sort of typical meeting that they had set up for everyone," he said. Sparks judged that the business loan meeting might help him get off assistance, so he chose not to attend the other meeting set up by his caseworker. 

Although that day did not result in the loan he hoped for, Sparks did get off income assistance and is now a business owner with a construction company. 

"I can say that I myself am a success story, but no thanks to the provincial government within social assistance," he said. 

"It's just like cattle. They just want to treat everybody the same, they want to get everybody out — even if they make minimum wage — just to get off the system. But it's not something that's long-lasting. They need to take people on an individual basis." 

Cut-off policy affected hundreds in one year

In FOIPOP documents released to the Nova Scotia Advocate, community services statistics show in 2016-2017, there were 482 cases where income assistance recipients or applicants had payments suspended for six weeks because they did not fulfil the department's employment requirements. 

There were 695 cases of payments suspended because the recipients or applicants quit jobs or were fired without just cause. 

The department stated at that time, there were an average of 26,000 income assistance cases in the province.

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Shaina Luck

Reporter

Shaina Luck covers everything from court to city council. Her favourite stories are about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. Email: shaina.luck@cbc.ca

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