Posted July 14, 2020
As the federal government attempts to move people off the Canada emergency response benefit (CERB), Nova Scotia's Department of Community Services is preparing to see hundreds of families move from the federal benefits program to a provincial one that doesn't provide recipients with as much money.
That's leading to concern from some advocates about what that transition process will look like, and whether families will be able to cope with a reduced monthly income.
"As families start to go back to what was a tiny amount of income to begin with, this is really going to challenge folks in terms of what they're able to do," said Alec Stratford, the executive director of the Nova Scotia College of Social Workers.
In the month the pandemic began, the Department of Community Services made income assistance payments to 26,054 families. That was an increase of almost 850 families compared to March 2019.
There was also an increase in new applications for income assistance in March 2020, as compared to March 2019.
Switching to CERB
However, the number of payments and new applications dropped in April and May. For that time period, roughly 1,000 fewer families applied for provincial assistance than in the previous year.
The department declined to do an interview about the topic, but said in an email that staff believe the drop in payments and in new applications is due to people switching from income assistance to CERB.
People on income assistance are able to earn a limited amount of money while still receiving provincial support, which means some provincial clients would have lost jobs due to COVID-19 and become eligible for CERB.
CERB provides $2,000 over a four-week period, which is significantly higher than Nova Scotia income assistance rates that range from $508 to $1,193 per month, depending on the number of people in a household and their living situation.
"If you are receiving income assistance in Nova Scotia, you are well below the poverty line, living in deep poverty," Stratford said.
"Of course, when folks have the opportunity to have their basic needs met, they're going to apply and qualify for that program."
Stratford said he was hoping families would be permitted to collect both income assistance and CERB at the same time, but families were only permitted to collect one form of support in what he terms a "clawback" of the other.
He said only about five per cent of families using income assistance were eligible for CERB, and the savings of allowing people to collect only one program were not substantial.
Transition to income assistance
One question anti-poverty advocates have is what will happen to families as they move away from federal benefits.
The federal government has been encouraging people to move off CERB, although the program was extended in June for an additional two months. Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough said as of July 5, CERB recipients will be required to sign an attestation about searching for work. CERB payments are taxable, while income assistance is not.
In its email, the provincial Department of Community Services said it will ensure a streamlined transition. Clients who moved from income assistance to CERB were allowed to keep their annual bus pass and pharmacare benefits.
"In addition, those transitioning back to IA from CERB, will receive the earned income exemption at the outset," wrote department spokesperson Lynette Macleod.
The department said it will not require a full reapplication for people who are transitioning back from CERB to provincial support, but it did say some clients might need to submit new paperwork as "each case is unique."
Darryl King is a representative with ACORN Nova Scotia, an organization that advocates for low-income tenants and workers. He's hearing a lot of concern from people he works with about what the transition will look like for those who have been unable to find work.
Some families are trying to put away enough to pay tax on CERB, but are concerned their savings might reduce the amount of income assistance they are eligible to receive.
"They're saving money for a rainy day, when possible, not knowing the outcomes with the CERB in the fall," King said.
"They're caught in between a rock and a hard place. We should have choices to make as individuals. Right now, choices are being taken away. They had to go on CERB. Fears, anxieties — it needs to be addressed. They shouldn't have fears and anxieties during the COVID pandemic," he said.
"Those who are in government, who are listening, should take their concerns into consideration."
Stratford said the college of social workers has asked Community Services for more information about what the transition process will look like, but hasn't been extremely satisfied with the answer.
"We do know that every situation is different and that every situation has a different context to it, so we don't know how smooth a process that will be," he said.
"And I can say, it's not going to be smooth anyway when you had income that was meant to allow you to meet your basic needs, moving to income that is not going to allow you to do that."
Article by Shaina Luck for CBC News