Advocates working with vulnerable Nova Scotians struggling to make ends meet say measures like increasing income assistance would change lives, and not implementing them is a political choice.
Along with some disheartening stories, that was the messaging they delivered to the legislature’s community services standing committee meeting Tuesday.
The meeting’s agenda focused on the impact of the cost-of-living crisis on vulnerable Nova Scotians and those living on income assistance.
“In 2017, we met somebody who described being on income assistance as flailing around in the water with no life raft. It’s been six years now since then, and thousands of people are still waiting for that life raft,” Feed Nova Scotia’s executive director Nick Jennery told the committee.
“They continue to wait through hurricanes, through (a) pandemic, through the housing crisis, through historic inflation, and through skyrocketing food and living costs.”
Jennery said rapidly raising income assistance rates to match the market basket measure (poverty line) and indexing the rates to inflation are among the policy-based changes that would make a “meaningful difference.”
“There is a deep cruelty in leaving thousands of Nova Scotians on income assistance to live a life of damaging poverty. And it’s a political choice,” Jennery said.
“Leaving so many Nova Scotians continuously waiting for that life raft is a political choice.”
Conversations around the cost of living often centre around those being “pushed to the margins” for the first time. While that often helps illustrate the scope of the crisis, Jennery said an equally important conversation around income assistance rates also needs to happen.
“Income assistance rates in our province are grossly below the poverty line. They afford no one a life raft of dignity, let alone one in which they can access their most basic needs,” he told the committee.
Feed Nova Scotia’s data suggests that at any given time, about 40% to 45% of people visiting food banks report income assistance as their primary source of income. University of Toronto (PROOF) data notes that in 2021, 74% of households reliant on income assistance in Nova Scotia were food insecure.
Jennery said it’s important to recognize food banks are a stop gap measure and not a solution.
“Lining up at a charity for a basic human right is not food security. People need income,” he said.
‘Going in the wrong direction’
Jennery said “time and again,” surveys undertaken by Feed Nova Scotia indicate that Nova Scotians want long-term solutions that address the root causes of food insecurity.
“They don’t want a social safety net precariously propped up by multiple, resource-strapped charities,” he said.
In a recent Feed Nova Scotia survey open to the general public, 82% of respondents indicated that provincial income support should be increased. In addition, 86% agreed that income support should be indexed for inflation. More than 90% said income support should be increased by $1,000 per year or more.
“I think the evidence that the systems are broken is that if I look at all of the metrics, pretty much all of them are going in the wrong direction,” Jennery said.
In a September survey conducted by Feed Nova Scotia, more than half of respondents indicated their need for food support had increased, and 55% said they’d require support again in the next two months.
In addition, 25% more people are entering the food bank support system versus last year. Jennery said 300 new people are going to food banks each week, and there are more working poor requiring these services.
“Clearly our current approach to addressing food security is less than effective,” he said.
The Feed Nova Scotia survey also found that 46% of those receiving support from food banks didn’t fill their medical prescriptions.
More than 20,000 needed holiday food help
Halifax Chebucto MLA Gary Burrill asked Jennery to paint a picture of what increasing income assistance to the market basket measure would look like for Feed Nova Scotia clients.
“It would be profound and it would be relatively immediate,” Jennery replied.
This past holiday season, more than 20,000 people reached out to Feed Nova Scotia for food assistance.
It was the non-profit’s “largest ever” Christmas program and a distressing milestone for the organization.
“We had to have a trauma counsellor on site to help staff navigate the conversations with over 20,000 people,” Jennery said.
“What typifies this last year versus previous years is that there’s always people in high anxiety. But there’s an element of fear as well as the anxiety. Fear because of all the things that we’ve talked about, the unknowns. A potential recession, rising costs of food, etc.”
Jennery said program or policy changes resulting in more disposable income would have a significant impact on the most vulnerable.
“We actually have evidence of that in recent times…When CERB was available, that was the only time that we saw the number of people looking for assistance at food banks actually decreasing,” he said.
‘We need rent geared to income’
Christina Carter echoed many of Jennery’s comments. The executive director of Chebucto Connections told the committee the rising cost of living means the work undertaken by her organization gets “tougher every day.”
“Last week alone, we had a single parent diagnosed with cancer. Their EI benefits ran out and they had to wait 30 days after their last EI payment to apply for social assistance, forcing them into rental arrears and receiving an eviction notice,” Carter said.
“Another person who recently became homeless, they got evicted for letting other folks couch surf at their home. A senior with health issues contemplating assisted suicide because they just don’t see another way out of the struggle. These are not unique stories, but I do believe there’s hope and a way to make meaningful change.”
Emphasizing that investing in people benefits everyone, Carter pointed to the housing crisis and the importance of affordable living spaces to ensure people can purchase basic necessities and invest in themselves.
Her suggestions for helping with the current crisis include extending the rental cap until more rent-geared-to–income homes are built, decreasing the gap between low income cut-offs and the market basket measure, ending the clawback on EI payments off of social assistance payments, and following recommendations made by the province’s Minimum Wage Review Committee that would raise it to $14.50 per hour by April 1 and $15 by October 1.
“I hope that…the government steps away from the affordable housing word. Affordable is still controlled by what the market is. We need rent geared to income,” Carter said.
“Rent geared to income means that a person is going to be able to buy food and all the other basic necessities it takes for them to live…Let’s stop using affordable.”
‘It’s not sustainable’
When Chester-St. Margaret’s MLA Danielle Barkhouse asked if Chebucto Connections planned to expand beyond the Spryfield-Sambro Loop area, Carter’s response was an immediate ‘no.’
She added it was her hope they’d never have to expand because it would mean that more people are struggling.
“My vision is to hopefully come here and say that less people are hungry and less people are homeless and that we can actually make the world sustainable, because at this time it’s not sustainable,” Carter said.
“We just don’t have the people power to continue taking on more. My staff is burnt out. It’s just not a good state.”
Department of Community Services Deputy Minister Tracey Taweel said we’ve been living through “extraordinary circumstances” that include a pandemic, Hurricane Fiona, and an affordable housing shortage that continues to impact the most vulnerable.
“As all of my colleagues here today who are serving as witnesses have outlined, there are considerable challenges affecting vulnerable Nova Scotians, the likes of which we probably haven’t seen,” Taweel said.
“It’s a bit of a perfect storm that has come together, if you will, with regards to COVID, cost of living, challenges brought on by climate change. It is certainly a complex environment within which we are operating.”
Taweel said the current crisis requires short and long-term solutions. She pointed to several short-term investments announced last month.
Those included an additional one-time payment of $250 for income assistance households, $3 million for Disability Support Program residential facilities and Child and Youth Caring Programs that support children in the care of the Minister, and $3 million given to food banks and organizations involved in food security (including Feed Nova Scotia).
Taweel said they’re also focussed on system changes that will help lift people out of poverty permanently. As an example, she cited the provincial child benefit increase for families with lower incomes that took effect last summer.
Changes coming to rent supplement program
Expressing her department’s belief that supportive housing is “the path to help more Nova Scotians,” Tawell pointed to the implementation of the province’s first Supportive Housing Action Plan to expand the number of units available across the province.
She also noted that in the next few weeks, changes will be made to the rent supplement program to provide more funding to income assistance clients. She said this will “better help them meet their housing-related needs” and should have a significant impact.
That change takes effect this winter and will support about 2,000 people.
“When the standard household rate came into effect, the rent supplement program was not adjusted to reflect the change in the standard household rate,” Taweel said.
“That change is being implemented now and it will result…in income assistance recipients who are in receipt of rent supplements receiving anywhere between $200 to $300 more per month to support them with their shelter costs.”
‘Holes in our social safety net’
Christine Saulnier was also among those who addressed the committee. The executive director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives-Nova Scotia (CCPA-NS) stressed that the impact of the cost of living isn’t just about what people can buy.
“It’s a significant barrier for many Nova Scotians to reach their full potential, including newcomers to our province,” Saulnier said.
She noted the cost of living pressures currently being faced by many Nova Scotians shine a spotlight on the long term struggles facing those made vulnerable by the “holes in our social safety net.”
“My main message is that the government needs to plug those holes permanently to ensure no one is left behind and to address the pandemic fallout,” Saulnier said.
“Those struggling with these cost increases are made vulnerable because of inadequate and underfunded public systems and by the design of our public policy.”
While compensation for CEOs skyrockets, Saulnier said the average worker is falling behind by at least 3.4% due to inflation.
“The inflation story right now is one of inequality. It is not about workers wages that are causing the current high inflation. It is not about too much money chasing too few goods,” she said.
“There are specific areas of the economy that are seeing price increases, notably energy at 23.7% and of course, food, shelter, and transportation… Under these cost increases, those living in poverty are having to make impossible budgetary decisions.”
Saulnier told the committee it’s critical that government properly fund and redesign income support and other public programs and services. She said these initiatives must also be adequate and accessible to more people, including non-permanent residents in the province.
‘Nobody should be dying in a stairwell’
In her closing remarks, an emotional Saulnier made a passionate plea for action.
I’m a researcher that looks at numbers a lot and evidence, but I’m also a community member. And as a community member, I am ashamed. I am sitting here and what’s weighing on me is the fact that somebody died in a stairwell in our rich city, in our rich province, in our rich country.
People are starving. We shouldn’t need food banks. We shouldn’t need shelters. This discussion is just one more red flag about the inadequate underfunding of our public systems. And for some reason, I don’t know what justifies it, but I’m going to assume it has something to do with assumptions and misconceptions about why people are turning to government.
You have the power and authority and fiscal capacity to act. I am tired of saying we told you so. Please act. People are falling through the gaps in our social safety net and the tragedies that we hear every day, they’re not unique. They’re not extraordinary.
It’s not about balancing priorities. We have people who own yachts in this province while people are living in tents. You need more tax revenue? There is more tax revenue to be had. You need to cut spending. We can make suggestions around that. You need to act and you need to act quickly. People need you who have power and authority right now in this government to change the systems and support people in a real way.
Nobody in our province should be living in poverty. Nobody should be living in a tent, and nobody should be dying in a stairwell.
We are rich. Let me underline that. Our province and our economy produces billions and billions of dollars of services every year. We need to share that wealth better. And government has the capacity and the mechanisms to ensure that happens.