My speech on Bill 42 – Amendments to the Employee Support and Income Assistance Act

November 5, 2014

HON. MAUREEN MACDONALD: I’m pleased to have an opportunity to stand and speak to Bill No. 42, which is an amendment to the Employment Support and Income Assistance Act. It is a bill that I introduced but I want to make it really clear, the process in our caucus is probably the same in all of the Parties here. Bills that are brought forward are sponsored by a member but with the support of other members in their caucus and are the positon of that Party caucus.

This Party’s caucus has supported and introduced this bill that would see income assistance rates increase annually, tied to at least a minimum of the consumer price index. I want to speak to a number of the points that were made by previous speakers, particularly the member for Clare-Digby on behalf of the government.

You know this piece of legislation in no way, shape, or form is intended to solve the problem of poverty and nobody in this caucus would say that tying income assistance annual increases would solve the problem of poverty for people who are getting income assistance. No one is that naive. The problem this bill seeks to solve is a different problem than the problem of poverty.

This bill seeks to solve the problem of passivity. This bill seeks to solve the problem of indifference. If we have a government Party that is passive and indifferent to the situation of people who are receiving income assistance and their need to have income assistance rates increase annually, at least equivalent to the rate of inflation, which is often measured by the consumer price index, then surely we can increase rates, annually, by that amount.

If you have a passive and indifferent government, then you will see freezes and no rate increases, which is currently the case, and it’s simply not acceptable. We did not introduce this legislation because there was no need to introduce that legislation. This was a problem that didn’t exist because rates were increased annually on a regular basis and so they should be, and did that solve poverty? No, it didn’t. What it did was put a few extra dollars in the pockets of people who live profoundly below the low-income cut-offs so that they wouldn’t fall further and further behind.

It also meant that government, subsequent governments wouldn’t find themselves in the position that we found ourselves in where the neglect of adequate raises to income assistance rates on an annual basis got so profoundly out of sync with the reality that the cost of catching up was very, very difficult. But in spite of the difficulty, I want to point out to the members of this Chamber that if you look at the budget that was tabled by the government’s Finance and Treasury Board Minister, it indicates that $178 million was put back in the pockets of low-income families and households in Nova Scotia through the Affordable Living Tax Credit between the year it was introduced and the year for which the budget covers. Just in case people didn’t hear what I just said – $178 million was put back into the pockets not only of people receiving income assistance, but also senior citizens getting the Guaranteed Income Supplement.

Incidentally, those seniors, the poorest seniors in the province, who receive the Guaranteed Income Supplement, no longer pay provincial income tax due to changes. Now that is a poverty reduction strategy. Does it mean that those seniors no longer live below the low-income cut-offs? Actually, what it meant was poverty among seniors decreased by 10 per cent in the previous four years, which is, I think, a pretty important measurement.

Poverty and the reduction of poverty should not belong to any one Party in this Legislature. It’s something we all need to be committed to, something that we all need to be working on, and I in fact believe that we do all have our own commitments to reducing poverty, including the current government, who are reviewing the social assistance program, the income assistance program. They are picking up on the work that was already underway in the department. The former minister has indicated what the elements of that work was and the member for Clare-Digby talked about a number of investments that his government has made to improve the child tax benefit and funding to the women’s resource centres and shelters. These things are all very important.

Housing has to be a significant component of any poverty reduction strategy. We have a very good road map which I’m very pleased to see the current government adopting now as its own and moving that forward. There many other initiatives that need to be continued if we truly are to deal with the problem of poverty.

Many people in our province go to work every day, and some people even work two jobs and maybe even three jobs, and they still live below the low-income cut-offs. They live in poverty. This is not acceptable in a society as affluent as Canada and it’s something that we all should be very concerned about. One of the things that I know my colleagues and I – and my colleague, the member for Cape Breton Centre was very much engaged and involved as the NDP Labour Critic – was working hard to put in place the minimum wage working group, which over a period of time in our province saw the minimum wage in Nova Scotia improve dramatically, improve on an annual basis, improve with predictability – I guess you would say.

That wasn’t always the case. For many, many years, the minimum wage in this province would be frozen for the first three years of a government’s mandate. Then miraculously on the eve of an election – maybe six months before an election, three months before an election – the government of the day might increase the minimum wage by 10 or 15 cents, in hopes that that would generate some feel-good factor in the electorate as they were ready to go to the polls.

Well, hopefully those days are gone. We have a minimum wage working group, and we have on that group representatives from Labour and Advanced Education and from the business community. We have officials in the Department of Labour and Advanced Education who are dedicated to doing the research to look at what’s happening in other jurisdictions and what the impact in improving minimum wage will be for those very people who work every day, and sometimes work in more than one job – possibly even three jobs – and still aren’t making a living wage.

It’s very important that, yes, if we have a poverty reduction strategy, it needs to look at the diversity of poverty. The previous speaker talked about getting to the roots of poverty, and there are many causes that contribute to people who live in poverty. When I was a young social worker – which wasn’t yesterday – we used to talk about the sources or roots of poverty being illness, disability, old age. We know that gender is a very big contributor to whether or not people live in poverty, particularly if you’re a single mother.

The highest rate of poverty among any group in our country are women who raise children alone, which is why we have the child tax benefit, to try to address poverty among children, particularly in single-parent households – although there can be and there are households with two parents who also struggle with income inequality and problems around poverty.

I would assume that many members of this Chamber are very concerned about the federal government’s recent announcement to move ahead with income splitting, which will see the wealthiest families in the country be able to get significant tax breaks, and the poorest families in the country, ironically, lose tax benefits and tax credits and rebates. As a province, we need to speak out firmly and strongly against this policy and the impact that it will have. There are very few Nova Scotian families that will see any benefit from that but even those that are, they are in the very top income bracket in our province.

I would urge the members of the government to adopt a bit more humility when they look at the initiatives of poverty reduction in the province. We all have a role to play, and denigrating the previous work that has been done to seriously reduce poverty is a great disservice – not only to one political Party, but it does a great disservice to what is going to be required to significantly reduce poverty in this province. Thank you.