Far away from the sound and fury that has engulfed the government of late, there’s good work being done to rid the province of the last relics of the old, paternalistic welfare system.
The rule-bound programs that some still call welfare, and the province calls Income Assistance (IA), provide the bare minimum to the poorest of poor Nova Scotians. A single, able-bodied adult may be expected to live on as little as $575 a month.
Traditionally, the province’s social services system has been the last stop on a desperate, downward spiral.
The community services department, and its comparably-named predecessors, reacted when people were at their lowest point, often in a crisis, and then mostly by checking boxes to match those people with the income or other life support which the rules said they qualified for.
None of that is okay, says Deputy Minister Lynn Hartwell who’s taken on the job of changing her department from the last resort to a place that offers lasting support.
It’s a catchy line, but it requires a fundamental change in the mindset of an operation that, for generations, has been preoccupied with enforcing rules to eliminate welfare cheats. Hartwell said cheating is limited, whether measured in numbers or magnitude.
Many of the people working for community services didn’t like the system any better than the despairing souls they were forced to nickel-and-dime not quite to death.
Some employees in the department have put off retirement so they can be there to see the place become what it should be – a department dedicated to helping people improve their lives, rather than a place that grudgingly hands out barely enough money to keep them alive.
Many of the changes are still a year off and have been four years in the making. Hartwell will take the criticism for the pace of the change but adds that to get it right a critical eye had to be cast on everything the department does.
Over the years, programs were added and altered until the province was saddled with mishmash of social services all with their own web of rules that almost seemed designed to capture and hold people in a permanent state of destitute dependence.
Once the transition is complete, the department intends to offer a basic, livable amount of income assistance (IA) and tailor additional support, financial and otherwise, to meet the needs of individuals and families.
One significant change will allow IA recipients to keep much more earned income without the province crawling back benefits. Currently, a person on assistance can earn only $150 a month before the province starts penalizing them, effectively by reducing each dollar earned over $150 to 30 cents. The new ceiling will be $250 and earnings above that will result in much less severe benefit reductions than at present.
Obviously, the idea is to help people transition from income support and “attach” to the workforce, which requires more flexibility in the application of rules than in the past.
Helping people find a way off welfare is increasingly important given the changing demographic of IA recipients. While recent years have produced a steady decline in the number of IA clients – there are 26,000 today – the fastest growing class of impoverished Nova Scotians is young adults. Currently 34 per cent of new IA applicants are aged 19 to 24.
Those would be the kids that fell through the cracks in the education system that, depending on who you ask, is either about to break apart altogether or magically be repaired by some strange administrative alchemy. It’s worthy of note that when the province short-changes education, the payback comes in many forms, including single, childless 20-year-olds on welfare.
Ensuring kids growing up in poverty have access to educational opportunities is a big part of the effort at Community Services. Changes in benefits include simple things like paying IA families’ internet bills, so their kids are on equal footing with more affluent peers, up to defraying college and university tuition fees.
Income assistance case workers’ jobs are changing most radically. They won’t look the other way when someone is gaming the system, but they won’t be the welfare cops anymore either. Their jobs will be to help clients improve their quality of life and attachment to communities, without the paternalism.
It all sounds very good. It’s hard enough being poor without having to answer for every dollar to someone who can take it away. The government department that most needs a heart seems to have found one.
Jim Vibert, a journalist and writer for longer than he cares to admit, consulted or worked for five Nova Scotia governments. He now keeps a close and critical eye on provincial and regional powers.