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Nova Scotia anti-poverty groups call for immediate increase to income assistance

Last Updated Dec 14, 2017 at 5:20 pm EDT

Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil talks to media after the provincial budget was tabled at the Nova Scotia Legislature in Halifax, Tuesday, Sept.26, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ted Pritchard

HALIFAX – Representatives from 13 community and anti-poverty groups are calling for an immediate increase to Nova Scotia’s basic income assistance rates, but they received no firm commitment from the province on Thursday.

Fiona Traynor of the Dalhousie Legal Aid Service, said income assistance rates have been static for the last three years while the cost of food and shelter continues to increase.

Traynor said although the province has previously said there would be no increase until the 2019-20 budget, the need exists now.

“People have not received any increase whatsoever, and people are falling into further depths of poverty as a result.”

Ideally, Traynor said what’s needed is a boost to what Statistics Canada classifies as the Market Basket Measure, which sets the financial levels needed for individuals and families to meet basic needs.

“We don’t think that’s going to happen, but we do want some kind of guaranteed incremental increases over the next several years,” Traynor said.

Premier Stephen McNeil wouldn’t commit to specific increases, but said the government is looking at ways to best help those in the most need during its ongoing internal discussions on next spring’s budget.

“There is a commitment to make sure that we look at all avenues to make sure that we are raising people out of poverty,” McNeil said following a cabinet meeting held on the Millbrook First Nation.

He pointed to steps already taken, including a modest tax cut in the most recent budget that would see 63,000 low-income Nova Scotians no longer pay provincial income tax after Jan. 1.

He also said he was “proud” of an announcement made Wednesday on a new grant program aimed at improving food security and helping young adults to become independent.

McNeil said the province is using the “dollars it has” while it continues work to restore the province’s fiscal health.

“We will continue to use that philosophy,” he said.

The 14 groups also asked for a collaborative redesign of the province’s Employment Support and Income Assistance Program.

Traynor said they want a six-month formal process where jointly chosen community representatives can work with the government to address gaps in the current system.

But Community Services Minister Kelly Regan said there have been discussions with 375 representatives from 128 organizations since her department embarked on a reorganization of its programming in 2015.

“We feel we’ve had a lot of input in a variety of different formats,” Regan said.

Christine Saulnier, Nova Scotia director for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, said it makes economic sense to put more money in the hands of people who will spend it in order to survive.

She said Nova Scotia, like most jurisdictions across the country, is failing to provide assistance that helps put people at an acceptable standard of living. Statistics Canada says that’s about $19,000 a year for an individual.

Saulnier said Nova Scotia’s assistance for that individual is slightly less than $11,000 a year.

“We are being very short-sighted when we think about what it means to actually reduce poverty in our community,” she said.