Community Services explains changes to programs and benefits

PORT HAWKESBURY: The Department of Community Services wants Nova Scotians to know about changes to their programs and benefits.

On June 20, Deputy Minister of Community Services, Lynn Hartwell and Brandon Grant, executive director of Employment Support and Income Assistance (ESIA), were in Port Hawkesbury hosting meetings with staff in the ESIA and child welfare programs.

Grant said the department has conducted extensive outreach over the past number of years, including two rounds of formal stakeholder engagement sessions with hundreds of Nova Scotians, informal talks with the public and media, upcoming fall information sessions, the department hosted a “First Voice” session, and they’ve distributed surveys to clients.

At the “First Voice” sessions held two years ago, Grant said clients told them the wage incentive structure is so punitive it undermines the incentive to work. By making these changes, he said the department is attempting to help more people transition into the workforce.

“This way, it allows people to try part-time work, try to get that extra shift and that way it isn’t such a steep cliff that people go off of,” Grant noted.

Under the new programs, a single person with a $764 net monthly income and no children will receive $264 more per month than they received in 2015/2016. A single person with a disability who is able to work with supports and has a $344 net monthly income from supported employment, with no children, will receive $111 more per month. A single person with a disability, no employment earnings and no children will receive $83 more per month. A single parent who is employed with a $764 net monthly income with one child and who receives child support will receive $629 more per month. A couple, one of whom earns a $764 net monthly wage, with two children, will receive $443 more per month.

Because the ESIA program has been based on the same model for the past 40 years, Hartwell said these wholesale structural reforms represent a culture shift in the department to focus on ending inter-generational poverty.

“As a whole, the system hasn’t been achieving what we want it to achieve which is to reduce poverty to have people live good quality lives,” Hartwell acknowledged. “So we’re changing to a system that is less about showing the need and more about ‘here’s the benefit that you’re entitled to and here’s what we can do to help and how can we help you move out of poverty. And if we’re not able to move you out of poverty… then what can we do to improve your quality of life.’”

The changes do entail finding efficiencies and cutting red tape within the department, but also ensuring staff spend their time helping those in need get the assistance they require, Hartwell noted.

“We could have staff filling out forms and spending a lot of time checking your receipts, or we can have staff talking with you and asking, ‘how are you doing, what do you need?’”

Hartwell said the main goals of the reforms are to address homelessness and build income security for people in need, which are interconnected issues.

“Part of the solution, of course, is having affordable housing and having options for them in that regard, but part of it is making sure that they have adequate income so that they can make some choices and make some decisions for themselves,” Hartwell noted.

As part of these changes, Grant added there are some good news announcements on the horizon. In July, the poverty reduction credit is going from $250 to $500 for single people without children. The next month child support will be exempt from benefits. In October, the new wage exemption structure will be implemented. Then next year, standard household rates will increase. This is in addition to youth programs for the children of clients, to help them find employment and seek education opportunities.

“This will be a huge generational change in which people will be able to see hundreds of dollars more… at the end of the month,” Grant added.

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A St. FX graduate and native of Arichat, Jake Boudrot has been the editor of The Reporter since 2001. He currently lives on Isle Madame.