Government redesigning welfare programs to get 'able-bodied' people off the dole

Saskatchewan’s finance minister says the Ministry of Social Services budget is the highest it has ever been, in part because too many “able-bodied” people are on income assistance for too long.

Minister says for too long governments have piled up welfare programs without examination

Saskatchewan's Social Services Minister Tina Beaudry-Mellor says a major review of the province's social assistance programs is underway. (CBC)

Saskatchewan's finance minister says the Ministry of Social Services budget is the highest it's ever been, in part because too many "able-bodied" people stay on income assistance too long.

With a nine per cent rise, Social Services saw the largest increase of any ministry in this year's budget.

"The bottom line for our program is it's simply not sustainable at this trajectory," said Finance Minister Kevin Doherty.

He said the cost of running the ministry is higher because more people are using its services. Doherty said in some cases, they shouldn't be.

Ministry trying to scale back

"If you're an able-bodied individual who doesn't have an addictions problem or health issues and you're 22 years old and you get on social assistance, we know that you're staying on social assistance for upwards of four years," Doherty said.

Along with increased funding, the government has started to scale back the ministry's programs.

This summer it's planning a small reduction in benefits to people on social assistance: an $11-million cut from a $1.125 billion budget.

It's clear that far more substantial changes are on the way.

System-wide review of welfare programs

Social Services Minister Tina Beaudry-Mellor said the largest review in the last 50 years of income assistance programs is underway. It's her government's attempt to streamline and simplify the system while saving money.

Beaudry-Mellor said because of tough economic times, more people need income assistance. But she said some people receive benefits for too long.

"We don't want to see individuals on social assistance for years at a time," she said. "I don't think the taxpayers of Saskatchewan want to see that." 

Beaudry-Mellor said governments of all stripes have created a pile of social assistance programs without examining how they interact.

Social Services "too lax" in creating programs

"While I think very well-intentioned individuals have added initiatives and programs on top of one another, I don't think there's ever been a serious look at how those things work together," Beaudry-Mellor said.

For example, in 2009 the Saskatchewan Party government introduced the Saskatchewan Assured Income for Disability program (SAID).

The finance minister said this program requires review.

"I think the minister (of social services) would acknowledge that we might have been too lax in what was allowed for disability, and are paying full benefits for some of these things," said Doherty.

School supplies, nutrition benefits, home repairs under review

We actually have two home repair programs for emergency home repairs.- Social Services Minister Tina Beaudry-Mellor

The ministry is also reviewing the annual benefit for school supplies, special diet benefits and home repair programs.

"We actually have two home repair programs for emergency home repairs," Beaudry-Mellor said. 

"Do we need two?"

She said her organization will reconsider the assets a person can own while still receiving welfare payments.

"We expect that people that come on to social assistance will exhaust all their other means of support before they rely on taxpayers for support," she said.

Beaudry-Mellor said all of this is still a work in progress. She did not know how much money the ministry will try to save, and said the government has not set a target.