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Halifax advocates criticize ‘inadequate’ income assistance increase kicking off in 2020

N.S. income assistance gone up as of Jan. 1
An increase in income assistance is aimed at bringing relief for families. But as Elizabeth McSheffrey reports, community advocates say the bump in benefits falls short of what’s needed.

Jodi Brown recalls taking drastic action to make ends meet while living on income assistance five years ago.

Her health prevented her from working, and with a young family to provide for, she would often sit in the dark to save on electricity costs. When she could, she added, she would use toilet paper in lieu of feminine hygiene products, because she couldn’t afford them.

READ MORE: Low-income Nova Scotians to get more financial support in 2020

“There’s no budget for that in the social assistance,” she explained. “I had $255 for a personal allowance and $620 for a shelter allowance.

“That’s it for me and my two children. That gave me a budget of $56 a month for groceries.”

Brown, now a member of the Nova Scotia Benefits Reform Action Group, spoke with Global News as the province’s increased income assistance rates kicked off at the beginning of January. She and other community advocates decry the new rates as “inadequate,” but the government says the new rates are designed to ensure everyone receives the maximum policy amount.

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Last year, Nova Scotia’s Department of Community Services announced the new, consolidated Standard Household Rate (SHR) — a replacement for the former personal and shelter allowances that would kick off in the new year.

Unlike those funds, the SHR is not determined by client expenses, but a variety of factors, including health, age, living situation, family size, and more.

“It does increase people to the policy maximum,” said Joy Knight, acting director for the province’s employment support and income assistance program. “Standard Household Rate is about a different way of doing business and about an adequacy increase.”

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But according to the Dalhousie Legal Aid Service, the SHR could work out to as little as a $10-per-month increase for a single employable adult. Along with the Benefits Reform Action Group, it’s calling on the province to increase the income assistance to reflect higher costs of living.

“It’s not keeping in place with inflation,” said legal aid worker Mark Culligan. “The income assistance rate is still going to be wildly inadequate and we think it’s really problematic that these increases aren’t built into income assistance every year.”

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Mark Culligan of the Dalhousie Legal Aid Service is calling on the Nova Scotia government to increase income assistance payments to reflect the rate of inflation.
Mark Culligan of the Dalhousie Legal Aid Service is calling on the Nova Scotia government to increase income assistance payments to reflect the rate of inflation. Elizabeth McSheffrey/Global News

Even with the new bump in benefits, Culligan said some Nova Scotia clients relying on income assistance will still live in poverty, as defined by federal government standards.

Knight conceded that not every client on income assistance will see a big increase on their monthly payment, but said the province will continue to look for ways to ensure its services meet client needs.

“We know that’s actually improving the adequacy quite a bit for some people and for others, it’s not. So we’re focused on what’s next for those individuals and how do we continue to move people forward.”

Halifax Public Libraries offering free menstrual products
Halifax Public Libraries offering free menstrual products

The province has also increased eligibility for its Poverty Reduction Credit. The new income threshold is now $16,000, up from $12,000 — a credit that will come in after eligible Nova Scotians file their 2020 income tax return.

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A number of federal tax cuts are now in place as well; the increase in the basic personal amount has gone from $12,069 to $13,229, resulting in a slightly lower federal income taxes. The benefit will be lower for anyone earning more than $150,473 during the year and will be reduced to zero for Canadians with incomes above $214,368.

The tax cut will also be offset on individual paycheques by an increase in Canada Pension Plan premiums of up to $97, according to the Canadian Taxpayers Federation. At the same time, employment insurance premiums will decrease.

— With files from The Canadian Press.