Robert MacKay, left, and Aurea Cormier of the Moncton chapter of the Common Front for Social Justice launch an anti-poverty ad campaign in this file photo. Photo: Brunswick News Archive

Pressure is mounting on the New Brunswick Progressive Conservative government to increase welfare rates following a damning national report.

Robert MacKay, the community co-chair of the New Brunswick Common Front for Social Justice, said the report by Maytree Foundation should be a call to action. It stated the province had the lowest welfare rates in the country last year.

“My brothers and sisters in poverty are like the frog being slowly boiled alive, not realizing the certainty of premature death,” said MacKay, who lives in a rooming house in downtown Moncton. “We need to get a coalition that will pull polite New Brunswickers from sitting on their hands and do some razzle-dazzle activism. This Maytree report won’t do a damn thing unless people get out on the street.”

Brunswick News has asked for an interview with Social Development Minister Jill Green since the report was released last week. On Tuesday, a department spokesperson said she was still unavailable.

In its annual report, Toronto’s Maytree found New Brunswick had Canada’s lowest welfare income – which is made up of social assistance, tax credits, and other federal and provincial benefits – in all four household categories it had examined.

For example, a single unemployed New Brunswicker received a maximum welfare income of $8,031 to survive on for the entire year. That’s $10,000 below Canada’s official poverty line or the basic amount needed to survive.

MacKay is on social assistance and finds himself in that category. He said without the help of various charities and churches, he wouldn’t be able to eat or clothe himself.

He said even though he struggles with various medical issues, the department will not raise his rate.

“I’m considered single and employable, which rolls off the tongue and makes a nice heading. But I’m not employable in any reliable manner, and they make it like the Spanish Inquisition to qualify for a disability rate.”

The New Brunswick government did index basic social assistance amounts for all households to inflation in April, making the report slightly outdated because it used last year’s rates. This contributed to an overall rise in welfare income. But Common Front says it wasn’t enough to change the New Brunswick position significantly, as many other provinces also raised their rates.

“New Brunswick is absolutely at the bottom of the barrel. We swim across the Northumberland Strait and you get $16,000 in P.E.I. for the same human being. You go to La Belle Province, and you’ll get $20,000 for the same human being,” MacKay said. “Most people do want to work and most people don’t want to live on an income that’s almost nothing and the social stigmatization of being on welfare. The research shows that if people were given a guaranteed, livable income, the sky would not fall and people would not be sitting around on their butts. They’d still be willing to work. People want to work and have a purpose in life.”

Liberal Leader Susan Holt called the situation sad. However, she would not commit to raising welfare rates should her party be elected to power in the next provincial election, expected in September 2024. Her caucus debated cost of living issues on Tuesday and a biennial policy convention is scheduled for the fall, when members will lay out Liberal policy planks.

“Our rates are so far below the poverty line, there’s no chance of getting ahead or climbing out of a hole like that,” she told Brunswick News. “So I think there are lots of things we need to do to give people a chance to get ahead.”

She pointed out there were many government programs that could be improved or introduced to help poor people, not just welfare income. But the bottom line, she said, is the province needs to spend more to help people, even if it costs taxpayers.

“Can we afford the cost of poverty? We need to look at the increased cost of health care and the increased cost to support people with housing and other things when they are impoverished. So investing in people’s self-sufficiency is a good thing.”

Green party Leader David Coon said at a minimum, New Brunswick should increase welfare to match Prince Edward Island’s rates. And he wants New Brunswick to negotiate with Ottawa to create a permanent program that would pay a guaranteed living income. Such a program was piloted in four Ontario communities – Hamilton, Brantford, Thunder Bay and Lindsay – in 2018 for one year before being cancelled by a newly elected Progressive Conservative government.

Coon said it was untrue that people would sit around and refuse to work if they received more government aid.

“The clear example of Prince Edward Island suggests otherwise, and the clear example of the guaranteed livable pilot projects that have been done in Ontario suggests exactly the opposite. Once your basic, daily needs of covering the costs of food and shelter and other necessities are met, then you can really put your attention to developing your full potential.”

By John Chilibeck, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Aug 03, 2023 at 13:32

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

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