Liberal MLAs are calling on the Houston government to raise basic income assistance rates, which have been frozen for two years since they came into office.
With inflation running at 7.5% in Nova Scotia, King’s South MLA Keith Irving told the legislature it would have cost the provincial government $20 million more to index welfare benefits to reflect the cost of living. Instead, Irving said the province cut the income assistance budget by $23 million for 2023-24.
The response from the Progressive Conservatives is that they have introduced “targeted supports” like the $750 seniors care grant and the Heating Assistance Rebate Program — $1,000 last year and $600 this year — to better support those living on fixed incomes.
“They say they are focused on targeted supports, but these targeted supports are failing our most vulnerable. They are not working,” Irving said.
“The government is taking in $125 million more this year. Does the minister not believe we have a moral obligation for our most vulnerable? Will he increase income assistance now?”
The short answer is no.
Here is the response from Community Services Minister Trevor Boudreau during question period:
We recognize the cost of living and affordability has made an impact on Nova Scotians. Employment supports and income assistance are programs the government has to support some of the most vulnerable. We have created a number of targeted supports. We have increased supports for foster families, we have increased supports for children with disabilities, we have increased the Nova Scotia Child Benefit… and we will continue to do what we can to support our most vulnerable.
Those comments from Boudreau prompted this response from Liberal MLA and former premier Iain Rankin:
After the provincial budget, Feed Nova Scotia said 42% of their clients are on income assistance. The highest percentage of food bank visitors are single adults without children. None of those programs for targeted supports (the Minister mentioned) will help those people.
The government made the conscious decision to not increase income assistance rates during record spending in this province and, in fact, it made cuts to the program. We continue to ask the government to reverse the freeze on income assistance and increase the rates.
Assisting seniors living in poverty
The Liberals claim the province has seen revenues increase by more than $2 billion over the past two years. Following question period, Premier Tim Houston’s pattern is to respond to only two questions posed by the opposition leaders.
The Halifax Examiner asked the premier if he would commit to increasing the basic income assistance rate in next spring’s budget. Houston did not make that commitment but indicated there is ongoing analysis within the government around who should receive how much.
“We have looked at targeted supports. In other provinces — we continue to do the analysis — they have different elements to the income assistance program. So, if you have someone who has a disability and who isn’t able to work getting an income assistance rate and another person who is going through a period in their life when they need some support from the government but who is on a path to re-attach to the workforce — should there be a blanket rate that impacts both of those situations?” Houston said.
“We have looked at targeted supports and if there is a better way, then we are always open to that”.
On a related topic — how to assist seniors living in poverty — Halifax Chebucto MLA Gary Burrill asked the finance minister to provide MLAs with two figures: an estimate of how many seniors were eligible to receive the $750 seniors care grant last year and the actual number of applications the government received.
Finance Minister Allan MacMaster agreed to look into the request, stating he was on board with making it easier for people who are entitled to benefits to receive them.
Burrill and other NDP MLAs are also asking the government to consider funding an automatic income supplement for seniors whose tax returns prove they are living below the poverty line. The cheque would come in the mail instead of requiring seniors who often live alone to go through the process of applying online.
Every province in Canada has some type of top-up for low-income seniors except P.E.I. and Nova Scotia.