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‘Cautious optimism’ to changes to employment support/income assistance, N.S. deputy minister says

Lynn Hartwell, Nova Scotia deputy minister of community services.
Lynn Hartwell, Nova Scotia deputy minister of community services. - Contributed

Changes to system are ‘strong steps in right direction,’ says Lynn Hartwell, deputy minister of community services

Nova Scotia’s deputy minister of community services has done some travelling lately, trying to get the word out about changes that are coming to the province’s employment support and income assistance program, changes she says will help put more money in people’s pockets.

Lynn Hartwell was leaving Kentville and was on her way to Halifax when she took a few minutes to talk a bit about the changes and her efforts to promote them.

She said she had been meeting with staff of her department as well as with various stakeholders, notably representatives of groups that work with vulnerable people or those in need.

“I would say that people seem to be expressing some cautious optimism that we’ve been listening to things they’ve been saying, that we’ve been hearing (about) the things that are wrong with our income assistance system,” Hartwell said.

The system hadn’t really been changed significantly in a long time, she said, and it wasn’t producing the outcomes the government wanted to see.

“We continue to experience a significant rate of intergenerational poverty,” she said, citing an example. “People grow up in families on income assistance and end up on income assistance themselves.” The action being taken “will be strong steps in the right direction,” she said.

One of the things the province is doing for 2018/2019 is introducing part one of the standard household rate, a wage exemption that will allow clients to keep more of the money they earn before seeing a reduction in their income assistance. The government says this will help clients stabilize their income while they transition into the workforce.

The way the system works now, Hartwell said, “It’s proven to be a real disincentive for people because they start to work more, they start to build their confidence, build their skill level, and they’re not seeing the return on the amount of time they’re putting in. We heard that from clients loud and clear.”

She says the province hopes the initiative will enable people already working to work more hours. The province also hopes it will encourage more people – those who may have been unable to work in the past for a number of very legitimate reasons (disability etc.) – to try a new work opportunity, even for an hour or so a week, knowing that if they make a few extra dollars, they won’t be penalized for it, and that if it doesn’t work out, their benefits won’t be negatively affected as a result.

For those people who are able to earn income, Hartwell said this initiative – given the amount of money people will be able to keep – is “much more significant than any kind of income assistance increase that we could ever hope to fund.”

Other changes for 2018/2019 include:

--The province will fully exempt child support payments as chargeable income in determining income assistance amounts, meaning clients receiving child support no longer will have these payments deducted from their income assistance.

--The province is doubling the poverty reduction credit from $250 to $500 annually. The government describes this as a “huge help to many single adults,” the largest group of income assistance recipients, giving them more help with their basic needs.

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