A new report by Food Banks Canada has given Nova Scotia a failing grade on its poverty reduction efforts.
The charity described its inaugural Poverty Report Cards report as highlighting Canada’s deepening food insecurity and failures from all levels of government. It graded provinces and territories against each other on experiences and measurements of poverty, standard of living, and government progress on passing anti-poverty legislation.
The province of Quebec scored highest, with a B- ranking. Nova Scotia was the only province to receive an overall grade of ‘F.’
“This is not a surprise at all. And if anyone is surprised, particularly those that are in the halls of government, then they’re not paying attention,” Feed Nova Scotia’s communications manager Abby Crosby said in an interview Tuesday.
While the number of people accessing food bank support in the province is up 25% compared to the same period last year, Crosby said those showing up only represent a small fraction of the one-in-five Nova Scotians experiencing food insecurity.
That jump in food bank usage provincewide is being felt by the organization’s member agencies and the volunteers who work there.
“They’re on the front lines, meeting folks who are reaching out for help for the first time. People are making really heartbreaking choices every day,” Crosby said.
“We hear from parents who are going without food so their children don’t have to. Folks who are skipping medication that they critically need to be taking so there’s a bit of money to eat something that day. It’s just a huge crisis.”
‘Clear to see why individuals are struggling’
According to the Food Banks Canada report, Nova Scotia’s high unemployment rate and stagnant minimum wage have contributed to the rise of poverty and left “a significant portion of the population” struggling to meet basic needs. In addition to having one of the highest unemployment rates in the country, the province also has one of the highest rates of food insecurity and poverty.
A steep rise in housing costs in recent years was found to have exacerbated the issue. In Nova Scotia, 68% of food bank clients live in rental housing. The report found that to be the worst rate in the Atlantic provinces, adding that it “points towards a larger issue with the cost of living and its impact on food insecurity.”
When looking at the high fixed costs for those living in the province, it is clear to see why individuals are struggling, regardless of whether they are working or receiving social assistance. Fixed costs for people on a low income are at their highest in Nova Scotia, where they are spending up to 66% of their income on costs beyond housing.
Meanwhile, 35% of the province’s residents are spending more than 30% of their income on rent. This means that there are likely many people living in Nova Scotia who must spend more than 100% of their incomes just to pay for the bare necessities.
Nova Scotia ‘lagging behind’
With no updated poverty reduction strategy and “no sufficient framework” to eliminate poverty and low incomes, the report’s authors described Nova Scotia as lagging behind “on the pathway out of poverty.”
Among the report’s other highlights is that nearly one in 10 Nova Scotia seniors live in poverty, the highest ratio among that age group in Canada The report also noted the poverty rate for people 65 and older is nearly two-thirds higher in Nova Scotia compared to the national average.
In addition, 61% of Nova Scotia residents said they’re witnessing an increase in poverty, and 53% believe they’re worse off now than they were a year ago. The report noted that while the provincial government has made some policy strides, it hasn’t introduced a poverty reduction plan since 2009.
“To address the issue, policymakers should focus on modernizing their approach to meet the needs of today’s society,” the report said.
Policy recommendations for Nova Scotia outlined in the report include introducing a new poverty reduction strategy, focusing in particular on poverty among seniors, improving community-based health care for seniors, and removing co-payments for provincial pharmacare programs.
The report also recommended introducing tax indexation, indexing income brackets to inflation, increasing and amending the Poverty Reduction Credit, and reducing claw-backs of the Nova Scotia Affordable Living Tax Credit (NSALTC). It also suggested the province expand broadband infrastructure.
“The government has failed to take substantive steps this year to meaningfully address poverty,” the report said. “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.”
‘Offloaded the crisis to charities’
Although most provinces (besides Quebec) received poor grades of C and D, Crosby believes that Nova Scotia’s overall failing grade comes down to a lack of government action.
“Government should really be in the driver’s seat mitigating this crisis. But they’re not,” Crosby said. “Frankly, they’ve offloaded this crisis to charities. And no one should have to rely on a charity to meet their basic needs.”
Having observed in Nova Scotians a growing intolerance to accept charity as the solution to food insecurity, Crosby is hopeful things will change.
“Now we need governments to wake up and pay attention. This report card highlights the choices they’ve made time and time again to leave people behind,” Crosby said.
“We’re hoping that maybe this time the message lands and we will see some policy-based intervention from them.”
Although the province’s minimum wage is set to rise from $14.50 an hour to $15 on Oct. 1, Crosby said it’s important to note that will not alleviate the current crisis. A report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives–Nova Scotia (CCPA-NS) earlier this month found that the living wage rate in Halifax is now $26.50 an hour. The rate is lowest in Cape Breton, but still pegged at $22.85.
“The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives made a recommendation of $15 for a minimum wage back in 2015. We’ve seen the reports,” Crosby said. “We know that a living wage is well beyond $15, so that is not going to move the needle. If folks are looking to a $15 minimum wage for an impact, we’re not going to see it.”