Transforming Nova Scotia’s Social Assistance Program

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I’ve been trying to think of an analogy for Nova Scotia’s Employment Support and Income Assistance (ESIA) program and so far this is the best I’ve come up with:

The government decides that while 13 years of public school is optimal for Nova Scotian students, it is only going to pay for 12 years, leaving many families scrambling to come up with the money to pay for that crucial final year necessary for their child to earn a diploma.

Or how about this:

Your doctor tells you your illness can be treated with 10 weeks of chemotherapy but the government healthcare system will only pay for nine.

When pressed, the government explains that while it wants people to be educated and healthy, it also really wants them to be self-sufficient, and how can they be self-sufficient if they’re dependent on government handouts of free instruction and medical treatment? They won’t even be able to find their bootstraps, let alone pull themselves up by them.

Okay, I admit, this is all patently absurd (my specialty) in the context of primary education and healthcare, two things we’ve decided government should provide for us, but tell me how it’s different from what happens to a single person with a disability on income assistance in this province? She is told she is entitled to a roof over her head and that ESIA will provide her financial assistance to pay for it. Then she’s given a (maximum) shelter allowance of $535 a month (a rate that hasn’t changed in 20 years) in a place like the CBRM, where the average market rent for a one-bedroom apartment is $650 a month. (In fact, according to the 2016 Homeless Count Committee, only 10% of market rentals in the CBRM cost $535 or less and there are very few such vacancies.)

And why? Because while the ESIA program is intended to provide financial assistance to people in need, it is also intended to help them become self sufficient (never mind that no less a personage than the Chief Justice of the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal has found these two purposes to be “competing,” as we shall see later on). It’s like the Department of Community Services (DCS) has a personality disorder: on the one hand it’s all, “Here’s money for shelter, we recognize it as a basic human need.” But on the other hand, it’s, “Only it’s not quite enough to pay for shelter so you’ll have to take money away from your other basic human needs, like food and clothing and heat and lights, to pay for it. But don’t worry, your sheer self-sufficiency will keep you warm at night.”

I’ve got it: giving someone $535 to pay for a $650 apartment is like having a doctor remove most of your inflamed appendix — it almost helps.

 

CASAR

I’ve been thinking about “income assistance,” as we now call it, having quietly dropped the word “social” with all its implications of communal responsibility, for some time now, on and off. (A luxury people actually on social assistance in this province — all 37,700 beneficiaries, including claimants, their partners and children — don’t enjoy, by the way, they have to think about it all the time.) It started back in June when I heard Nova Scotia’s deputy minister of Community Services, Lynn Hartwell on the CBC, explaining the changes the government had planned for ESIA.

It became more urgent when I read a recent article by Robert Devet in The Nova Scotia Advocate taking local media to task for their “lousy,” one-sided reporting on the changes. Devet has earned his place on his high horse on this one: he covers issues related to poverty and disability and inequality better and more consistently than any other news outlet in the province, much of that coverage taking the form of firsthand reports from people trying to navigate the system.

Devet had some advice for anyone interested in exploring issues related to ESIA:

There are in Nova Scotia many articulate and knowledgeable critics of the welfare transformation measures that Community Services is rolling out bit by bit.

Many of these advocates and social assistance recipients have signed off on the Community Agenda for Social Assistance Reform (CASAR).

This coalition of some 30 organizations, women’s centres, and individuals all across the province are calling for an immediate raise in social assistance rates and truly meaningful consultation and collaboration.

Here’s a hot tip for reporters in Nova Scotia: Talk to the fine folks of CASAR also, next time you’re talking to the minister or the department’s bureaucracy.

I decided to follow his advice and contacted CASAR’s Megan MacBride. (Under normal circumstances, she explained, CASAR would have arranged for the interview to include a “First Voice,” someone on social assistance, but my request was rather short notice so I spoke to MacBride alone. We agreed, however, that I would, at a future date, do a follow-up with a First Voice — preferably one from the CBRM.)

We started with a little background: the NS Department of Community Services (DCS) began this talk of “transforming” ESIA back in 2015. MacBride said organizations like hers were invited to provide “input” into the process but by 2017:

[W]e felt that we were giving input in but we weren’t getting anything back from those interactions…It felt as though the suggestions that we were giving were sort of falling on deaf ears and that [the DCS] had a plan for transformation and they weren’t willing to compromise with income assistance…recipients, for one, but also with their allies and community agencies that support them.

These recipients, agencies and “individuals who are supportive of the cause” formed CASAR and their first release, says MacBride, was on the subject of the Sparks case, about which, a few words must be said.

 

“Unreasonable and unjust”

Here are the details of the Sparks case, as presented in a 2017 ruling by the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal, written on behalf of the three-judge panel by Chief Justice J. Michael MacDonald:

The facts are straightforward. In 2015, the appellant, Brenton Sparks, and his wife, the intervenor Rosemary Sparks, were living in the African Nova Scotian community of East Preston with their three daughters, then aged 13, 9, and 8. The family had been receiving income assistance since the Fall of 2014. The one cheque, payable to Mr. Sparks, had three components: (a) a personal allowance to Mr. Sparks; (b) another to Ms. Sparks; and (c) a shelter allowance based upon the size of the family, including children.

In July of 2015, Mr. Sparks was contacted by his caseworker requesting him to participate in an employment services program. This was part of the Province’s goal to promote economic self-sufficiency for clients. Mr. Sparks indicated an intention to start his own business. His caseworker did not object but urged him to seek employment in the meantime.

Mr. Sparks did not follow up to his caseworker’s satisfaction. This resulted in a six-week suspension of the family’s benefits.

CBC Photo

CBC Photo

As Rosemary Sparks told The Advocate:

It happened to us in the middle of the winter. Without warning and all of a sudden we were deprived of very basic things like a roof over our head, food, keeping warm, winter clothing for our kids, all these very simple things.

Brenton Sparks — “[w]ithout the benefit of counsel” — appealed the suspension of the family’s benefits (which had totaled about $1,000) to the respondent Assistance Appeal Board and lost. He then hired a lawyer and asked the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia to review the board’s decision, and lost again. He then went to the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal which ruled in his favor.

But it’s not just that the court ruled in Sparks’ favor, it’s how it ruled in his favor, taking the opportunity to consider the board’s decision in “context,” even providing a brief history of the ESIA Act itself:

By way of further background, the Employment Support and Income Assistance Act was introduced as Bill No. 62 in the Legislature on October 26th, 2000. It can be said to be a piece of watershed legislation. It replaced the Family Benefits Act and most provisions of the Social Assistance Act. Notwithstanding its lofty title, the legislation contains a mere 29 sections. The substantive mechanisms are not contained within the legislation; rather, they emerge in the regulations and to a lesser extent the policies.

When the Bill was introduced in the Legislature, it was subject to much criticism. Of considerable complaint and worry was the absence of draft regulations. A hoist motion to suspend the reading of the Bill for six months (to permit time for the regulations to be tabled and to then allow time for examination and debate) was made, but defeated by the majority government. The chief complaints were obfuscation due to the absence of the regulations; pandering to anti-welfare sentiments; and a lack of attention paid to affected communities (including women, single mothers, African Nova Scotians, and off-Reserve Aboriginal people) and rural populations where job prospects were dim.

Chief Justice MacDonald noted the dual — and competing — purposes of the ESIA Act, which is intended both to provide financial assistance to people in need AND help them achieve self-sufficiency. (The Chief Justice also remarked, in passing, that, judging by the long name of the ActAn Act to Encourage the Attainment of Independence and Self-sufficiency through Employment Support and Income Assistance — the emphasis seemed to be pretty squarely on the self-sufficiency bit.)

MacDonald wrote that the legislation was “ambiguous” (in part because of these dual purposes), and that ambiguous legislation must be interpreted in “a manner that is consistent with Canada’s (more specifically Nova Scotia’s) international human rights obligations,” including its standing as a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

In that context, wrote MacDonald cutting an entire family off social assistance because of a failure on the part of the father was “unreasonable and unjust.”

[S]imply put, denying innocent people, living in poverty, the funds they need for financial survival cannot be sustained by any reasonable interpretation of the governing legislation.

 

Human rights

Megan MacBride (Source: LinkedIn)

Megan MacBride (Source: LinkedIn)

Okay, back to CASAR. It formed in 2017 and began advocating around the Sparks case but its agenda, released in December of that year,  was more far-reaching. Said MacBride:

[R]eally what we lay out in that agenda is a plan for collaborative consultation. So, up until that point, we were feeling the government was using the word ‘collaboration’ but they weren’t actually doing it. It was very much a one-sided situation. So, in our community agenda we outline a very specific way that we would like the government to go ahead in doing their third phase of consultation.

[W]hat we were suggesting was that a working group be struck — community agencies, government and folks that are living on income assistance — that would review the policy change that the government wants to make and give input into… various things. You know, as big as, how this gets to the root cause of poverty and as minute as…how information is conveyed to people who are on income assistance. We [have] a very clear sort of a step-by-step guide on how we wanted that to happen.

And…?

Up until this point, we’ve been told ‘No,’ that they are not doing that.

In the government’s defense (sort of) what CASAR is asking for is big:

[W]e want an income assistance program that’s based on human rights, so the human right to an adequate, livable income…[I]n Nova Scotia we are leagues below the Market Basket Measure for poverty and really every measure for poverty that there is going. So, we recognize…that if the government takes a human rights approach, which they absolutely need to do, it would also have to come with a serious increase to the rates.

How serious an increase becomes clear when you consider the three changes to the regulations announced last week by the government and explained by the DCS this way:

On Oct. 1, the province will introduce part one of the Standard Household Rate, a wage exemption that will allow clients to keep more of the money they earn before seeing a reduction in their income assistance. This will help clients stabilize their income while they move into the workforce. This way, the more they work, the more financially stable they will become.

While this is unquestionably a good thing, MacBride said it needs to be viewed in context:

[W]e know that only…10 or 11% of folks who are on income assistance are actually working, so that is a very small amount that the wage exemption is actually going to impact. Alongside of that, we know that 80-90% of folks who are on income assistance actually have a disability. So, when we look at those numbers side by side…it is quite clear and understandable…looking at the demographics, why that isn’t as far-reaching as one would hope that it would be.

Then there’s this:

Clients on income assistance will no longer have child support payments deducted from their monthly payments. The first adjusted cheques will be issued Aug. 1.

Again, MacBride said, this was a change that needed to be made, but…

If we look at inter-generational poverty, if we look at families who have multiple members who are on income assistance, that clawback will absolutely help folks who are actually getting child support payments, but not everyone is; not all single parents have a co-parent who is making those payments. So, absolutely those changes need to be made – I don’t think that we would say that they’re bad changes — the problem is is that they’re impacting such a small amount of people and if we had the opportunity to really collaborate on this project from Day One, perhaps there is something that we could do or a perspective that we could have added that would make it more meaningful and more impactful.

The third change applies to people in homeless shelters:

The Department of Community Services is introducing the new Personal Items Allowance, to support people temporarily living in homeless shelters and transition houses. The allowance, which will be implemented in October, will provide $101 every month to help buy essential items, including those for personal hygiene.

I didn’t discuss this in detail with MacBride, but I remembered the study on homelessness that was done in the CBRM in 2016 and went back to check the figures. A “service-based analysis,” conducted over four weeks in April 2016:

….asked 40 agencies in a variety of sectors to provide information about homelessness among their clients. The resulting data identified 304 people experiencing homelessness, 88% of whom were single adults; 38% of whom were under the age of 30. The chief barrier to finding permanent housing — experienced by 69% of clients — was poor housing options/low income

Some of these individuals were in homeless shelters and would benefit from the increased shelter allowance, but many were not — some were couch-surfing, some were in ERs or addictions centers, some were sleeping rough.

So while providing toiletries to people in shelters is something no one would ever knock, it doesn’t even flirt with addressing the root causes of their homelessness.

But as MacBride pointed out, these changes, which will have such a limited impact on income assistance recipients, will cost $11 million.

 

Austerity

Convincing a government to spend significantly on social welfare programs is always a hard sell (that “anti-welfare sentiment” cited by Chief Justice MacDonald in his history of the ESIA Act is never far from the surface) and although MacBride says there’s a whole body of research showing the economic benefits of ensuring people have the basic necessities of life, we seem to view spending on social programs as just that — spending — as if there were no return on it.

The transformation of the Employment Support and Income Assistance program in handy triangle form. (Source: NS Department of Community Services)

The transformation of the Employment Support and Income Assistance program in handy triangle form. (Source: NS Department of Community Services)

This is all true at the best of times, but never more so than when a government has embraced the gospel of austerity, as Nova Scotia governments of various political stripes have been doing for some time now. Said MacBride:

I think certainly the austerity agenda that numerous governments have had here in Nova Scotia for the past, probably 10 years, that’s a big part of it because we do recognize the solution to this requires significant spending…[B]ut we also need to recognize that investment in one spot will also impact things like health, which is the highest budget in the cabinet, so we have to look long-term at it.

There’s another aspect to government reluctance to spend on social programs, though: an almost Dickensian notion that receiving welfare should be as unpleasant as possible to ensure it is never anything other than a last resort for truly desperate people (even as you’re pretending it’s just a helping hand tugging on their bootstraps). The word “punitive” occurs a number of times in CASAR’s community agenda. and when I asked MacBride about it, she said:

That is the way our program is set up and it’s clear when reading the policy manual and the regulations that it is a system of absolute last resort. So, I have clients who are getting $1.50 from [Canada Pension Plan] because they were forced to apply for it at 60, even though they knew they weren’t going to get anything…[E]ven after the Sparks case, whole families are being cut off income assistance because one parent didn’t bring in the documentation they were asking for.

Things like that are still happening and continue happening as transformation rolls out and one of the things that…we’ve been trying to get the ESIA transformation team to understand is people are absolutely struggling and people have a great distrust of the system and the system doles out violence against them every day, in the way that annual reviews almost always result in people losing…funding or people not receiving their special needs [benefits] because the computer has rolled over and no one called them in for an annual review. Things like that, that people actually stay awake nights worrying about and worrying if they’re going to be able to feed their children – that’s violence, there’s no other way to look at that.

In fact, Chief Justice MacDonald used the word “punishment” to dismiss the DCS’ interpretation of ESIA regulations, saying the department’s way of reading the rules would:

…see innocent spouses and children, with little or no control over the situation, punished for the misdeeds of another.

Furthermore, this punishment (and it is nothing short of punishment) visits those who are most vulnerable: those living in poverty.

 

Too late to collaborate?

So where does that leave us?

For MacBride, it’s not too late for the government to make good on its talk of “collaboration” in “transforming” ESIA. And for anyone wondering what difference such an approach might make, she provides a concrete example:

If we take the metro bus pass announcement that they recently made…The [pickup] location wasn’t on a bus route. And so, luckily, the department has done some things to change that — like having those spots in income assistance offices, where people go anyway — but again, with the best of intentions, it’s poorly rolled out.

She even has an example of this very same government taking just such a collaborative approach to another reform project — that of the disability support program:

[T]hey, from the get-go, used a human rights-based model, they also struck a  group of organizations and advocates and First Voices people to work on those policies. I think without that process, things like the legislation changes that have been made as a result wouldn’t have been possible…Was that process perfect? I don’t think anyone would say yes, but at least it started…from a basis of understanding and true collaboration that we would want for folks on income assistance as well.

 

 

 

 

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