“There’s fundamental flaws with it and really the fundamental flaw is a lack of adequacy,” said Peter Gilmer, of the Regina Anti-Poverty Ministry. “We’ve never had benefits that met actual basic needs. That’s been the real issue and certainly, the SIS program does not move us in that direction.”
SIS, which replaced the Saskatchewan Assistance Program (SAP) and the Transitional Employment Allowance, was implemented in July. One way the new program differs from its predecessors is that household utility expenses, which did have their own allowance, must now be claimed under a general shelter allowance.
Gilmer said the Regina Anti-Poverty Ministry, which advocates for individuals suffering from poverty, saw twice as many cases relating to the payment of rent or utilities, or evictions, between August and October than the same time period last year.
“All we saw in terms of a benefit increase on the basic adult allowance was a $30 increase over SAP and some increase in regards to shelter allowance, but when you wrap utilities into that you’re going to find that many households are going to be farther behind.”
The benefit includes a few defined benefit categories, the basic benefit (to cover food, clothes, transportation, etc.), shelter benefit (rent, mortgage, utilities, etc.) and a number of other allowances for things like having children, childcare, moving, and job training.
“If you’re living in sub-standard housing in the inner city where you have very high utility bills, like for heating, obviously you’re gonna be in crisis,” Gilmer said. “We expect that we’re gonna continue to see a high rate of utility arrears and cut-offs.”
Social Services Minister Paul Merriman was asked Thursday about potential concerns relating to SIS.
“I haven’t heard anything specific that came out of their announcement this morning,” he said. “I understand that they have some concerns and I’d be more than happy to work with the group and meet with that group.”
Merriman pointed to the SIS “motivational interview process” as a way to identify individuals’ challenges.
“This program’s designed so that people coming into social services, we identify any barriers they have getting off social services. So, we want to continue to do that through our motivational interviewing process.”
The goal, as told to Global News after the program’s announcement in June, is to outline what the client’s goals are and how to get them to a level where they can be self-sufficient. This is based on a similar model that has been used in Manitoba and New Brunswick.
“Sit down and ask them what are their barriers? What got them to this point that they’re on social assistance? And how can we help you get back to that place of self-sufficiency? So, it has been working in other provinces for a few years,” Merriman said in June.
Following the motivational interview, steps include job training, financial literacy and budgeting help, with the goal of helping people become self-sufficient.
End Poverty Regina’s Nairn MacKay, though, said that process puts the onus of solving poverty on the impoverished.
“The department thinks that they can train financial workers in motivational counseling, so that we can counsel people out of their poverty,” MacKay said.
“There are so many paths into poverty and, thanks to this province, there are not many paths out.”
Gilmer echoed MacKay’s concerns.
“The people we work with are among the best budgeters I’ve ever met. The reality is you cannot budget what you don’t have.”
Instead, all advocates at the Thursday morning event proposed a simpler solution.
“People just need money to live,” MacKay said. “I think there’s a philosophy of blaming poor people for being poor.”
She says inadequate income can have dangerous consequences that go beyond unpaid bills, such as higher rates of domestic violence.
“If you’re faced with the choice between homelessness and maybe leaving your children to the foster care system, and returning to your abuser, that’s a very tough choice,” she said. “And, about one-in-10 women are choosing to return to their abuser.”
Another issue discussed by advocates Thursday morning was what they see as a lack of consultation prior to the announcement and implementation of SIS, though they did commend the new program’s increased earned income exemption. For non-disabled people under SAP, the maximum exemption for a single adult was $200. That’s been increased to $325.
The accessibility of the program, which can be applied for by mail, online and on the phone, was also discussed Thursday morning along with application wait times.
Gilmer says a FOIP request revealed a 27 per cent rate of dropped calls at the SIS call centre.
“That’s extremely problematic,” Gilmer said. “In other cases, people are just giving up because they’re waiting for hours to get through to talk to somebody.”
SIS’s lack of an option for direct payment of rent and utilities was also brought up as a concern.
“Certainly this is a big problem for a small percentage of people we work with – people with addictions and other issues,” Gilmer said.
He stressed again, though, the biggest concern he and the other advocates have with the program is its adequacy.
“Even if these initial problems are glitches that can be worked out, the bottom line is that this would remain a wholly inadequate program and would need to have significant improvement to it,” Gilmer said. “The key solution right now is to raise the rates, and go back and cover the actual, full cost of utilities.”
– With files from David Baxter and Dave Giles