Income Assistance in Nova Scotia: From last resort to repairing the social safety net

While it is easy to get distracted by rhetoric during an election campaign, people want and need to understand how party platforms would affect their lives and communities in tangible terms.

One of the issues discussed in the election campaign is income assistance. The Nova Scotia Alternative Budget 2017 provides a framework to consider campaign proposals related to income assistance. How would each of the parties ensure that people currently on income assistance get enough support to pay for their basic needs? Will they immediately increase income assistance and provide a timeline for reducing—indeed, ending—poverty?

Structural flaws in the current income assistance program—including insufficient support, complex bureaucracies, and onerous eligibility requirements—have been well-documented.

The current income assistance system is based on stereotypical assumptions of who is poor (and why), that people can pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and that if the system is too generous people will never exit it. Clients are policed, shamed, and stigmatized in an effort to “encourage” them to seek employment and independence or look to charities for help.

The current system does not provide enough to meet shelter costs or food costs for basic, healthy meals. The difference between total income supports provided and the Market Basket Measure (MBM) of poverty shows just how much more is needed for clients to reach the poverty line. This poverty gap (in 2015) was found to be as high as 61.2% for “single employables.” The smallest gap was 32.6% for a couple with two children.

Furthermore the current system designates many essentials as ‘special needs’ such as a phone and bus passes or equivalent transportation allowances. These should be factored in to the base rate. In addition, we recommend a household rate that must also be adjusted to provide additional support for persons with disabilities and chronic health issues. These are important cornerstones of the system.

There is no question an overhaul is needed.

As an immediate first step, the CCPA-NS’ Alternative Budget recommends that the supports provided move to a single assistance envelope based on income—adjusted for household size—removing all unnecessary bureaucratic hoops. A standard household rate that is one size fits all would not respond to the diversity of essential client needs. Modest increases to the total monthly amount would be inadequate, as would only small changes to the earnings clawback. Substantive, immediate increases with progressive increases to follow in order bring the assistance levels to the MBM is what is required.

Specifically, in year one of a new government, the Alternative Budget recommends:

  • Combining the “personal” and “shelter” allowances into one payment (providing maximum shelter allowance to all eligible households) and investing $20 million to increase monthly payments.
  • Investing $16 million to decrease the earnings claw-back substantially to 30% after the first $500. The higher exemption/retention rate helps those able to work to remain in or re-enter the work force. Also, the earnings exemption/retention is averaged over a longer period to account for temporary work, which is important for those who cannot sustain long-term employment (for example, persons with health or episodic disability issues).
  • Investing $32.5 million to increase the Poverty Reduction Credit to immediately increase support by thousands of dollars for single recipients with no dependents who are the most in need.
  • Providing an additional $6 million to the Nova Scotia Child Benefit to increase both the benefit amount and the income eligibility threshold.

Additionally, as we previously stated, addressing the needs of the working poor is an important part of an anti-poverty strategy and should include raising the minimum wage to $15 (not tax reductions). A poverty reduction strategy with targets and timelines to hold government to account has been advocated by the Community Society to End Poverty-Nova Scotia for 20 years. Also critically important are investments in affordable housing, food security, child care, health care (long term care, home care, pharmacare, oral health care, mental health care), education, post-secondary education, adult learning, as well as public transit and transportation.

A robust social welfare system serves all Nova Scotians without stigma and not as a last resort.


Christine Saulnier, PhD, is Nova Scotia Director of the CCPA and coordinator of the Nova Scotia Alternative Budget. Stella Lord, PhD, is a CCPA-NS Research Associate, member of the Nova Scotia Alternative Budget working group and Volunteer Coordinator, Community Society to End Poverty-NS.

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