New Brunswick Social Development Minister Jill Green is pledging to offer better benefits to low-income people with disabilities. John Chilibeck, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

An independent report that showed New Brunswick provides the lowest welfare in the country for people does not take into account the full scope of government aid, says the minister of social development.

Jill Green finally answered questions Wednesday on the damning report, released late last month by Toronto’s Maytree Foundation.

Brunswick News had been asking for an interview with Green, who only took on the portfolio in late June, since the report came to light two weeks ago. It suggests a single unemployed New Brunswicker received a maximum welfare income of $8,031 – which includes social assistance payments, federal benefits and other government transfers – to survive on for the entire year of 2022.

That was $10,000 below Canada’s official poverty line. It was also the lowest welfare in the country.

“Reports like this are important,” Green said. “They help us benchmark our strategies because all the provinces are working to support people in the lower-income bracket.”

But she quickly added the Maytree report, which looks annually at four household categories, had its limitations.

“Our support amounts look much lower, yes, especially if you look at a single employable individual. That rate is lower than in the other provinces. But that doesn’t take into account all the other benefits that are potentially available to them. So our benefits that we provide are quite tailored to individuals and their needs.”

As examples, Green cited the province’s health cards provided to low-income families that wouldn’t have private insurance to cover expenses such as prescription drugs or dental work. The province also provides financial help to impoverished people for daycare and some transportation.

“If you just look at the surface, it might look like we have fewer benefits, but there are other things our department can do to provide assistance. So we try to work with each individual to find the best plan for them.”

The New Brunswick Common Front for Social Justice and the two opposition parties in the legislature have criticized the Progressive Conservative government for low welfare rates.

The Department of Social Development’s website states 34,222 people have claimed welfare this August out of a population of about 830,000. That’s four out of every 100 New Brunswickers.

Green party Leader David Coon and Common Front say the province should do away with welfare altogether and offer people a living wage, which in New Brunswick would be about $20 an hour for a full work week, according to the Human Development Council.

Such a program would pay a person close to $3,000 a month, more than three-times higher than traditional welfare. Supporters say it would allow people to look for meaningful work or go back to school, a means to get their lives in order, instead of constantly trying to figure out how to scrape by and relying on private charities to survive.

Such an experiment was tried in four Ontario cities in 2017 until Doug Ford’s newly elected Progressive Conservative government cancelled it a year later, before the three-year, $150-million pilot project had run its course. About 4,000 Ontario residents had used the program.

But Green isn’t interested in setting up such a program in New Brunswick.

“I’m not keen on one-size-fits-all,” the minister said. “What I really like about our program is that they are individualized for each person who needs assistance, and it can include education support, it can include transportation support. There are so many different opportunities for us to assist a particular individual, and a basic living income wouldn’t allow us to connect with those individuals. I think it’s important that we have those connections to them and provide support in a meaningful way.”

Her department continues to do work to reform benefits for people with disabilities. Although she did not know off the top of her head how many welfare recipients have a disability, advocates have criticized her department for not providing enough help.

Maytree found that, last year, a single unemployed New Brunswicker with a disability saw a welfare income of $10,884. That’s the lowest amount in the country and about $8,000 below the official poverty line.

By contrast, Newfoundland and Labrador had the second highest for such recipients at $20,400, followed by Prince Edward Island with $18,715 for the year.

Green acknowledged her government could do better. Her department is redesigning disability support services, and she hopes to go to cabinet in the fall to convince her Tory colleagues to sign off on changes.

“We’ve done a lot of stakeholder engagement and talked with people with lived experience to see how our programs match what their actual needs are. And the work is continuing.”

By John Chilibeck, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Aug 10, 2023 at 08:38

This item reprinted with permission from   The Daily Gleaner   Fredericton, New Brunswick

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