Bruce Fitch, Minister of Social Development, recently announced significant changes for social assistance recipients in New Brunswick. The Minister estimates the cost of this investment at $10.8 million, which he says “will help reduce poverty and remove barriers for clients who are struggling to get back into the workplace.” This government, not known for its generosity, is changing some regressive regulations and abolishing others outright.
For example, as of October 1 income assistance recipients can earn more money from a job without being penalized. They can earn $500 a month without penalty, plus 50 cents for every additional dollar. This is a big improvement, since the previous exemptions were $150 a month and 30 cents for each additional dollar.
The reduction in benefits for adult recipients who live with their parents or who pay more than 25 percent of their welfare check for housing is simply eliminated.
Amounts received for child support, the Canada-New Brunswick Housing Benefit or compensatory money received for personal injury are no longer included in the calculation to determine eligibility for social assistance.
Income assistance rates are indexed to the province’s inflation rate. Last year the government increased rates by 5 percent for certain categories of recipients.
Two other changes are being implemented: the definition of “deaf” will change and nurse practitioners will be allowed to complete medical forms for people applying for a disability designation.
Minister Fitch also announced the establishment of a Task Force to review support services and programs for people with disabilities.
Poverty reduction was not a big part of thee New Brunswick Conservative Party’s 2018 election platform.
In the 2020 platform, we find no mention of changes to social assistance.
So why did Minister Fitch decide to make these changes, which are ultimately quite progressive? What has changed?
There are three main factors that could justify this change in direction.
First, public pressure. For years, community and lobbying organizations such as the New Brunswick Common Front for Social Justice have been raising awareness of the need to combat poverty. They have published numerous documents describing the situation and proposing concrete actions to reduce poverty, and have challenged candidates and party leaders during election campaigns. Activists met with the Minister of Social Development on several occasions and sought to make the public aware of the precarious situation of citizens living on social assistance through opinion letters and interviews in the various New Brunswick media outlets.
Second, the lack of manpower. The province, like the rest of Canada, has an urgent need for workers. In the last ten years, New Brunswick’s labour force has decreased by 9,300 people. Minister Fitch is counting on the increase in the wage exemption to encourage those who are already employed to accept more hours of work and others to return to the labour market.
Third, rising consumer prices. This has a direct impact on the financial situation of the entire population, but particularly for the most vulnerable citizens on fixed incomes. The New Brunswick Consumer Price Index shows a 4.7% increase in the cost of a fixed basket of goods and services compared to last year. It is clear that the thousands of people who rely on social assistance cannot absorb such increases.
Some have criticized Minister Fitch for not increasing the basic rates for recipients, which were among the lowest in Canada in 2019, and the situation has certainly not improved.However, we must give the Minister some credit for responding positively to the demands of community organizations and recognize that these changes will make a real difference in the wallets of thousands of social assistance recipients.
The government must now take the second step if it wants to continue to reduce poverty. To do so, next year’s provincial budget must include a substantial increase in the budget of the Department of Social Development to improve all basic rates for recipients.
Finally, it is interesting to note, the last time significant changes to the social assistance program were implemented was in 2013 by Madeleine Dubé, then Minister of Social Development in the Conservative government of David Alward. We have not seen any major changes under the Liberal government of Shawn Graham or Brian Gallant.
Jean-Claude Basque is an editorial board member of the NB Media Co-op and a long-time labour and social justice advocate. He previously served as the Provincial Coordinator of the NB Common Front for Social Justice.