Sask. anti-poverty advocates concerned about social services changes

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Sask. anti-poverty advocates concerned about social services changes
WATCH ABOVE: As Saskatchewan continues to struggle with a weak economy, many people in this province are in need of financial help. The Ministry of Social Services saw its budget increase by nearly seven per cent, but also gave a warning that changes are coming. Jules Knox reports – Mar 23, 2017

The Ministry of Social Services is seeing its biggest budget ever, but some people say it’s still not enough.

The budget went up by $73 million to $1.125 billion dollars, an increase of nearly seven per cent.

“It’s driven primarily because of utilization,” Finance Minister Kevin Doherty said.

With a soft economy and federal employment benefits for those who need them running out, more people are turning to provincial programs for help, he said.

“Last year we had the highest case load in our history, so we’ve seen significant growth,” Peter Gilmer, an advocate with the Regina Anti-Poverty Ministry, said.

Social Services Minister Tina Beaudry-Mellor said interest in the Saskatchewan Assured Income for Disability, or SAID program, was bigger than the government expected.

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She also said changes are in the works for income assistance programs.

“Our programs are overly complex and difficult for people to understand. They’re difficult for our clients to understand. They’re difficult for our community-based organizational partners to understand,” she said. “I hear things like people have navigators to help their clients navigate through the system, so that’s a problem. The income assistance redesign is going to get at some of that.”

“Over the years, a number of well-intentioned individuals have just added and added and added without looking at the full spectrum of programs and services that we offer and how they relate to one another,” Beaudry-Mellor said.

“So that’s one of the things that the income redesign will do.”

Some benefits, such as funeral costs associated with viewings or services, have already been eliminated. Others are being reviewed.

“With funeral expenses, we are now going to be in line with other jurisdictions. We previously were not,” Beaudry-Mellor said. “We made some decisions about things that are nice to have and things that are need to have.”

Gilmer is particularly concerned about cuts to the transitional employment allowance, or TEA program. Each adult receving TEA benefits will see a reduction of $20 each month. The government has estimated it will bring savings of $954,000 this budget year.

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“It’s already a threadbare program that pays the least amount of benefits, and that’s one of the places they look to cut,” he said. “This also follows on a year when they expanded this program, so more people are having to access the TEA program.”

You’re taking the most vulnerable people in the province with the least benefits, and that’s where you’re cutting, and that’s just fundamentally unfair and we are going to be fighting this budget,” he said.

Gilmer said the change is happening at a time when there are tax cuts to the corporate sector and high income individuals, adding that it isn’t fair.

“If we’re going to make cuts towards the most vulnerable people in the province, we think it adds insult to injury to be looking at corporate tax cuts and tax cuts to the wealthy,” Gilmer said.

The government tried to roll back the SAID program last year, prompting protests that forced it to retreat. Once again the program could be facing drastic changes.

“I’m terrified of where a redesign goes,” Gilmer said.

READ MORE: Province retracts proposed cuts to income assistance

Gilmer isn’t against streamlining income assistance programs but said it’s too often connected with cuts.

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“Right now looking at things like no coverage for funerals and viewings, etc. Looking at things like no home repairs for health and safety purposes, school supplies for children. We’re very disturbed by where this re-design appears to be going.”

The ministry said it will be able to release more details about the income assistance re-design in late spring.

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