Dalhousie Legal Aid community legal worker Fiona Traynor says the current welfare system on which 44,000 Nova Scotians depend isn’t working and should be replaced by a proposed Basic Income Guarantee. Until that happens, says the long-time advocate who frequently represents the poor in benefit disputes and appeals to the Dept of Community Services, “the provincial government could do a better job following its own laws.”
Traynor was one of a dozen speakers to address a weekend poverty conference at the Central Library hosted by Dalhousie University, Basic Income Nova Scotia (a not for profit group) and the Mayor’s Office.
Provincial welfare payments are currently financed through Ottawa’s Canada Social Transfer.
Traynor says that since 1996, Ottawa has left it to each Province to make policy around how that money gets spent. She argues that until a new system replaces welfare, there are no standards and a framework of accountability is needed.
The system is bureaucratic and punitive, reinforcing the stigma of people living in poverty,” says Traynor. “It is not there to support people but to cut them off and tell them to get back to work”.
As examples, Traynor notes a policy change by the NS Dept of Community Services in 2013 that cut off bus passes for welfare recipients who could not demonstrate they had 10 medical appointments a month.
Then there’s the case of 31-year-old Sherreace Higgins, a single parent with a school-age son. Traynor went to the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia to argue the Department of Community Services should not have cut off welfare payments while Higgins was a full-time student at Dalhousie University.
Community Services argued Higgins was not eligible for income assistance because of the amount she was receiving through student loans. In 2014, the Court ruled in Higgins’ favour, saying the student loans should be regarded as a repayable debt rather than income.
The former recipient, who left school after losing welfare benefits, returned and is now employed as a legal assistant with a Halifax law firm.
The Legal Aid lawyer told the conference about Career Seek — a program offered through Community Services to encourage welfare recipients interested in post-secondary education.
Traynor says after eight years, it is still regarded as a “pilot” project by the department.
Statistics recently released by Community Services to the provincial NDP caucus show only seven people on income assistance have been funded through Career Seek in the past three years.
“It’s a failed program because they have allowed few people to access it,” claims Traynor.
Traynor supports the introduction of Basic Income Guarantee to replace the current income assistance program financed by Ottawa and administered by the Province.
Traynor says shelter rates for people on welfare have not increased in 20 years and they continue to fall further behind the cost of living. Statistics Canada figures show nearly one in five Nova Scotia children live in poverty, the second highest rate in the country.
Editor’s note: an earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Traynor as a lawyer. She is not; she’s a community legal worker.