Unanswered questions creating 'nervousness' about new Sask. income support program

Uncertainty surrounds the provincial government's new income support program, as members of some advocacy groups say they've been left in the dark about how it will affect their clients.

Social Services Ministry says new program won't affect existing clients, but details limited

A stock image shows a shopping cart in the foreground with a grocery store aisle out of focus in the background.
The provincial government is introducing a new income support program this summer, but advocacy groups say they don't know how it will affect their clients. (Tzido Sun/Shutterstock )

Uncertainty surrounds the Saskatchewan government's new income support program, as members of some advocacy groups say they're still in the dark about how it will affect their clients.

In March, the province announced a new program called Saskatchewan Income Support (SIS), which it said will be launched in summer 2019 following a multi-year review process.

It allocated $50 million to the program in its 2019-20 budget, and cut back a combined $45 million from two existing schemes: the Saskatchewan Assistance Program (SAP) and the Transitional Employment Allowance (TEA).

Members of advocacy groups have told CBC they believe the new program will replace SAP — a program that provides support for families and individuals who can't cover basic living costs due to factors like disability, illness, low income or unemployment.

There are also concerns it might replace TEA, which provides assistance for people in pre-employment services, or those who are job-ready and seeking employment.

Any changes when you're so dependent on government funding, it causes a lot of anxiety.- Nikki Langdon, Neil Squire Society

The social services ministry would not say if that is the case, or if any money budgeted for the existing programs would in fact go toward the new income support program.

It could not provide details on whether there will be changes to eligibility or rates under the new program.

"Work is continuing to finalize critical details of the program," it said in a written response to questions.

"As such, we are unable to provide you with more specific details at this time."

It said the new program will only be for new clients when it is launched this summer, adding that the ministry will respond to further questions about the future of the existing programs at a later date.

The ministry could not say whether existing Saskatchewan Assistance Program and Transitional Employment Allowance clients would be able to switch to the new program if they choose to.

'It's the unknown'

Nikki Langdon is the Prairie regional manager for the Neil Squire Society, whose programs support people with disabilities. 

She said not knowing if there will be changes to benefits and eligibility under the new program is worrying her clients.

"It's the unknown around the whole program," said Langdon.

"The people I work with — there's a lot of nervousness around this because … any changes when you're so dependent on government funding, it causes a lot of anxiety."

According to the Ministry of Social Services, the new program will include increased earned income exemptions so "people can keep more of what they earn as they transition to independence."

Concerns about effect on seniors

Dave Nelson from the Canadian Mental Health Association said he is worried for his clients because of the absence of more information about the new program, and because of the format of the advisory board being set up to provide feedback on it.

He is particularly concerned about how the changes might affect seniors who live with disabilities.

"People, right at the time when they become a senior at 65, are no longer able to remain" on Saskatchewan Assured Income for Disability — an income support program for people with significant and enduring disabilities — "and have been punted back to SAP," said Nelson.

"One real good question is what's going to happen to those people now when it changes from SAP to SIS, and there's a lot, lot more impact and effort being put on getting people to work," he said.

"How is that appropriate when somebody is right at the change of their life with a significant and enduring disability?"

Unclear if existing clients will be moved to new program

The ministry said SAP and TEA clients would not be affected when the program launches this summer, but would not say if those clients would later be moved into Saskatchewan Income Support.

An advisory board dedicated to the Saskatchewan Assured Income for Disability Program (SAID) has been disbanded to create a new group with a broader focus, including a focus on SIS.

Both Nelson and the Neil Squire Society's Langdon were on the old committee, whose members had to apply to join the new Income Assistance Advisory Group. The membership of the new committee has not yet been announced.

Dave Nelson from the Saskatchewan branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association says there are unanswered questions around the new Saskatchewan Income Support program. (CBC)

Nelson, who was a member of the SAID advisory group, is worried the new group will not represent people with disabilities to the same extent.

He said the new group's focus will span not only disability supports but also income support programs for potential job seekers.

"The SAID program is very substantially different from other income support programs because it's not really income support, it's income replacement for people with long-term and enduring disability rights," said Nelson.

New program should take time to assess properly

Langdon said she is hopeful the new committee will work as closely with the province as the old one did, saying the relationship between the advisory group and the province was very collaborative.

Shaun Dyck, the executive director of Saskatoon Housing Initiatives Partnership, said it will be important that the new program takes the time to accurately assess which program people should be on.

"It really depends on whether people say they can work, and the question is, how much can they work and be successful at working?" he said.

"Income should really be focused on the ability — not only their ability to work, but how much they can conceivably work and still maintain a high quality of life, considering any challenges they have."