It has been two years since the Liberals and Conservatives adopted the New Brunswick Economic and Social Inclusion Plan to overcome poverty. The goal: by 2014, 25% fewer individuals and families will be living in poverty. Based on information publicly available, I want to review key initiatives implemented during the past two years.
In November 2009, time of the launch of the Plan, the priority actions were regrouped under three headings: first, those related to meeting basic needs, secondly, those related to life-long leaning and skills acquisition and, thirdly, those related to community participation.
From the list of initiatives related to meeting basic needs, three actions that were announced in November 2009 were supposed to be acted upon immediately. The results for these actions have not made a significant dent in poverty reduction. The first was to change the rate for single employable people on social assistance from $294 to $537 per month. This has been completed, but the impact is disappointing as only 3% of assisted poor individuals fall into this category.
The second action was “to extend health cards for persons exiting social assistance for up to three years until a prescription drug program is introduced.” This has only partially been fulfilled. Some recipients re-entering the workforce are not offered to keep their health card.
The third action was to change the household income policy. It was decided that in the future, social assistance clients in a non-spousal relationship would be able to share accommodations with clients or non-clients, thus saving on rent, electricity, etc. They would receive separate checks instead of only one check for the household. This meant that, for example, instead of receiving a single allocation of $857 per month for two adults, the two co-renters would receive $537 each, thus increasing their financial situation by $217 per month. This improvement did not apply to clients who entered social assistance after January 1, 2010, so it discriminates against the group who applied for social assistance afterwards.
Overall, under the initiatives related to the category of basic needs to be put in place over five years, only three out of ten actions have been completely fulfilled up to now, as indicated below. Quotations are taken directly from the wording of the Plan.
- “Restructure and increase social assistance rates including a new regime more appropriate for persons with disabilities.” No significant action has been taken except that persons with certified disability were given an extra $4.17 per month (this barely covered the cost of a litre of milk).
- “Significant overhaul of household income policy.” This has only partially been done.
- “Introduce vision and dental care for children in low-income families by April 1, 2011.” This action has been postponed because the Advisory Board on Health, the optometrists and the dental advisors said they needed more time.
- “Provide more opportunities to keep earned income as individuals transition to work.” No decision has been taken on the retention of earnings.
- “Raise allowable asset exemption.” No action has been taken.
- “Determine the details of a prescription drug program for non-insured citizens with the goal of starting to phase in the program by April 2012.” The Advisory Committee mandated to do this has not yet released information.
- “Raise the minimum wage to the Atlantic average by September 1st, 2011 and adjust for inflation annually thereafter. Dialogue with stakeholders regarding the scheduling of increases.” The schedule of increases has been published but the $10 per hour minimum wage scheduled for September 1, 2011 has not been implemented. Small and medium businesses have convinced Minister Coulombe to postpone it until April 2012. They are now seeking a two-tier minimum wage for workers in establishments receiving tips, mainly staffed by women.
- “Provide stable funding for homeless shelters within five years.” Five homeless shelters have received $460,000 for repairs and six have received funding for programs.
- “Include protection for roomers and boarders in the Residential Tenancy Act.” These amendments were made.
- “Provide funding for community transportation alternatives such as Dial-a-Ride.” Funds have been allocated to two community-based transportation projects
Beyond the ten initiatives related to “meeting basic needs” over five years, a second group of initiatives labelled “opportunities for life-long learning and skills acquisition” were also to be implemented over five years.
On the positive side, several of these have been tackled:
- Five early childhood development centres have been developed.
- Four government early childhood development sites are in operation.
- Licenced day care spaces have slightly increased.
- Elementary literacy programs are offered in 17 schools in 2011 (compared to 9 in 2009-2010).
- Over 100 volunteers delivered one-on-one literacy tutoring to struggling readers in Grades 1 to 3.
- An action plan was developed to strengthen the ability of low-income people to enter the workforce.
- Training in workplace essential skills is offered at the Bathurst and Saint John Community Colleges.
- GED and e-learning programs are now offered in over 100 communities.
- Funding to improve access to post-secondary education for lower income families was increased to $1.5 million dollars.
Community participation was the third component of priority actions to be undertaken over five years. The following is a list of those carried out, the ones barely started and those not implemented at all.
- Development of a comprehensive housing strategy. There was a $23.4 million announcement made to build, renovate and offer provincial housing programs.
- Exploration of the concept of a social enterprise and community investment fund through the design of a model to foster social and economic growth. To our knowledge, no information was made public in this area.
- Adult literacy strategy to help low-income people to enter the skilled workforce. Some initiatives were put in place to encourage the acquisition of a grade-12 diploma and computer skills.
- Reduction of barriers to continuing education. This initiative was integrated in “a research project” to find ways to encourage more students from low-income families to continue their education. To our knowledge, no further information is available.
- Creation of social enterprises and community investment funds. Nothing has been publicly announced.
- Development of a public awareness campaign, which is critical to the success of the poverty reduction, still has not been undertaken.
In summary, yes there are some positive steps, mainly in the educational part of the strategy. However it is difficult to concentrate on education when you are hungry. Basic rates for most of New Brunswick’s 40,000 individuals and families on social assistance have been frozen since October 2008. In contrast, Newfoundland and Labrador has increased basic rates by 11.6% in three years. A six-month postponement of minimum wage increase and a possible two-tier minimum wage will hurt 17,000 workers. The overhaul of the social assistance process, to move it from a rules based system to an outcome based one, is not on the horizon.
There are three years left to fully implement the five-year plan announced in November 2009. People living in poverty are eagerly waiting for more concrete actions.