“Here is a statement from the Department,” began the statement from the Department of Community Services. It came in response to CBC reporter Taryn Grant’s request for an interview about last week’s newly released national Poverty Report Card by Food Banks Canada.
The report gives a letter grade in 13 indicators of poverty for each Canadian province, plus an overall letter grade.
Nova Scotia received the lowest possible overall grade, F, and it was the only province to score so low.
So, what did the department have to say in its “statement” in the place of Grant’s requested interview?
The statement was issued in the name of Christina Deveau, a departmental communications advisor, but was undoubtedly sweated over by a committee of high-ranking bureaucrats and vetted by both the outgoing (Karla MacFarlane) and incoming (Trevor Boudreau) ministers of Community Services.
So much effort for so little value.
Before we dig into its non-specifics, a few words about what the Food Bank report actually said about Nova Scotia and, more specifically, the government’s legislative progress on reducing poverty.
“Nova Scotia has a high poverty rate, and residents face significant affordability difficulties,” our section began, noting that the province “has taken minimal steps in 2023 to address these issues.”
In fairness, the report did catalogue what it called some “notable developments” from the last year:
- Increasing the minimum wage twice this year, from $13.60/hour to $15/hour by October 1.
- Extending the 2% rent cap until the end of 2023, when it will be set at 5%.
- Increasing the Nova Scotia Child Benefit for low-income families.
- Creating up to 3,200 more paid internship opportunities for post-secondary students and others studying in Nova Scotia, representing $13 million in additional funding over the next four years.
- Increasing access to a range of holistic and community-based mental health and addiction services, with over $10 million in funding.
But then the report burrowed deeper to justify our worst in the country F:
Housing access and affordability remain a persistent challenge for many. To support renters, the province will set a 5% rent cap in 2024, but 5% rent increases coming into place in 2024 are still too high for many households with low incomes. The government must develop stronger protections for renters who are already struggling to keep up with the current cost of rent. While several housing announcements have been made this year, only a handful of the changes are dedicated to affordable housing. As the province needs more than 30,000 affordable units, the construction of a couple hundred units per year is not going to meet the need of struggling residents.
The province is making some gains in its efforts to address rural and racial inequalities. Initiatives include investing $10.6 million to expand high-speed Internet access to rural and remote communities and supporting the development of a new Mi’kmaw Native Friendship Centre, to provide essential housing, schooling, and employment services for the urban Indigenous community. However, the former announcement relies heavily on Federal Government funding.
Considering Nova Scotia’s low grades throughout the report card, much more should be happening to combat poverty. While the steps taken this year will help somewhat, much more needs to be done to strengthen the social safety net — particularly for workers and seniors — and build housing that meets the needs and incomes of residents.
For the above reasons, Nova Scotia received an F for this section. The government has failed to take substantive steps this year to meaningfully address poverty. Lack of legislative action on affordable housing and towards improving social assistance will likely result in worsening financial conditions for residents in the province if the trend continues.
Food Banks Canada concluded its report with seven policy recommendations for the province:
- Introduce a new poverty reduction strategy, focusing in particular on poverty among seniors.
- Improve community-based health care for seniors.
- Remove co-payments for provincial pharmacare programs.
- Introduce tax indexation, indexing income brackets to inflation.
- Increase and amend the poverty reduction strategy.
- Reduce the “clawbacks” of the Nova Scotia affordable living tax credit.
- Expand broadband infrastructure.
OK. That’s the report.
Now, the rhetoric. Recall that the report singles out Nova Scotia as the worst jurisdiction in the country, the only province in the country to receive a failing F grade.
Shall we parse?
There is no question that the cost of living is a challenge for many, and people are struggling with affordability and housing across the country.
A challenge for many… struggling across the county… Uh, remind me. Which province got the F? Which provincial government is responding with a canned statement about poverty writ large instead of granting an interview to explain what it will do to improve?
Information from organizations like Food Banks Canada is critical to enhancing our understanding of the challenges that people are facing.
Pro forma. Boilerplate B.S. Report dutifully filed and forgotten.
We realize that — as is highlighted by the report — there is more to do in our province. It will take all levels of government, the private sector, and community working together to come up with solutions.
I had imagined, for the briefest of flickering moments, that the Houston government was about to wear its own responsibility for our embarrassing F. But no. Note the pivot to spreading responsibility like manure in the garden. And then…
As a government, we have made significant investments to support low-income Nova Scotians. Some examples include:
- Increasing the Nova Scotia Child Benefit, in both of the last two budgets
- Enhanced support for foster families
- More support for children with disabilities
- Increases to the Seniors Care Grant
- Reducing childcare fees
- More staff and funding for programs for those at risk or living homeless
- Supports for post-secondary students (one-time additional grants, improving student loans)
- Funding for heat pumps for low-income earners to lower energy bills
- Significantly increased funding for more rent supplements and affordable housing projects and taking action to increase the housing supply
- More support to food banks, family resource centres and transition houses
- Targeted supports for Income Assistance clients
- Expanded the Heating Assistance Rebate Program last winter
Forget for the moment that many of these initiatives and investments, praiseworthy as they may be, were already included in the report’s not-good-enough notable achievements.
The question, given the F based on what the government has actually done, is what will you do now?
In addition, under the Internet for Nova Scotia Initiative, projects are currently underway that will deliver reliable, high-speed Internet access to about 99.99% of homes and businesses across the province. We believe Nova Scotia will be among the first provinces in Canada to reach this level of coverage. To date, we have 95.5% coverage with access to connections continuing to happen daily.
Not to rain on this parade, but I couldn’t help but be reminded of the prophetically failed words of short-lived Tory premier Rodney MacDonald way back in November 2006. “Expanding our broadband internet access is as important to our society today in 2006 as electrification was in 1936,” he told the Halifax Chamber of Commerce. “By the end of 2009, Nova Scotians, no matter where they live, will have 100 percent coverage.”
Government approved amendments to the Minimum Wage in February 2023 to increase the minimum wage rate from $13.60 to $14.50 per hour on April 1, 2023, and $15.00 per hour on October 1, 2023. Government also approved, effective April 1, 2024, the minimum wage rate set the preceding April be adjusted annually on April 1, based on the projected national Consumer Price Index for the preceding calendar year, plus an additional 1%, and rounded to the nearest $0.05.
Again, I believe most of this was covered in the report’s “notable developments,” or yesterday’s news section.
But it’s also worth referencing — which the government’s statement does not — last month’s report by the Nova Scotia Centre for Policy Alternatives, which pegs the current living wage in Halifax at $26.50 an hour, or $11.50 more than the government’s latest minimum wage.
At that rate of increase, low-wage earners in Nova Scotia will never earn a living wage.
There is still more to do. And the province will continue to work diligently to identify and implement further measures to help vulnerable Nova Scotians.
Amen to that.
Just for amusement though, let’s circle back and look at those seven specific policy recommendations for Nova Scotia in the report and then scour the government’s official statement for a specific response to any of them (with the exception of increasing broadband access, which governments have been promising and not delivering since forever).
We don’t need more bloodless, blandly unresponsive official statements in response to reporters’ legitimate requests for interviews.
We need accountability.