Yesterday in Nova Scotia, a critique of the provincial government’s 2011 changes to special needs allowances as part of the income assistance system was released. The report titled, Cornerstone Compromised: A critical analysis of changes to Special Needs Assistance in Nova Scotia, is published by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) Nova Scotia office and co-authored by Sara Wuite, Christine Saulnier (both CCPA) and Stella Lord (Community Society to End Poverty-NS).
The report is the result of research and community consultation that took place in 2012.
Like all other provinces, income assistance in Nova Scotia does not offer enough income for people to be able to afford the basics (see our Poverty Progress Profiles for more info). In Nova Scotia, 65% of people on income assistance receive the special needs allowance, a majority of which are persons with disabilities. The allowance covers items related to disability, employment or health that are not covered under the basic benefit which is meant for housing, food and personal expenses. While the NS government claims the changes were meant to ensure a better understanding of benefits across the province and more equitable access, the results indicate that the system is “even more inconsistent and unfair”.
In the press release co-author Christine Saulnier was quoted as saying “I was really struck by what the research revealed about the mismatch between the government’s stated intentions and the outcomes of the changes.” Saulnier felt that the changes reflect a poorly informed policy, or one that was intended to detrimentally impact the most vulnerable, “The effects on the ground provide evidence of either the unintended consequences of a poorly thought out policy change or an intentional outcome of decisions that were not originally or publicly communicated.”
A key change by government was the removal of the ability for people to appeal for support for items not listed in the policy, but essential to well-being. In the CCPA report it is noted that now Nova Scotia is one of three provinces that do not allow for this consideration. Now instead of flexibility, there is a list of 33 items that can be claimed under the special needs benefit, and claimants can no longer look to the Appeal Board to determine what may be considered ‘essential’ beyond this list.
Aptly stated, the co-authors remark that while the term ‘special’ is used to describe the benefit program, the support provided access to essential needs that went unmet by regular income assistance.
Also in the press release are a number of recommendations for action:
- Remove barriers to access to special needs
- Reinstate an ‘open-ended clause’ in the ESIA regulations
- Repeal most of the ‘special needs prohibitions’ in s. 24(2) of the Regulations
- Restore the decision-making authority for special needs to the ESIA Regulations
- Fully index special food-related allowances
- Streamline the intake process and requirements for adequate documentation
- Implement meaningful stakeholder engagement procedures
- Incorporate human rights perspective into ESIA legislation
- Make transformational reform of the Income Assistance Program a Top Priority
- Implement a Poverty Reduction Action Plan as integral to developing Healthy Public Policy