It’s one step forward, two back for Saskatchewan’s poorest


DONNA”S DEED Former social services minister Harpauer swung the axe. Will Tina Beaudry-Mellor pick it up? (Photo by Darrol Hofmeister)

Province | by Paul Dechene

Remember how the Saskatchewan Party waited until after the provincial election to release their budget? That’d be the budget with a larger-than-expected $434 million deficit? Some might argue it would’ve been nice going to the polls knowing just how dire the province’s finances had gotten. You know, informed citizenry makes for better democracy and all.

Well, the nasty post-election surprises keep coming. While the Saskatchewan Party was able to ride into the election on a wave of goodwill earned from the anti-poverty strategy it released in February, some changes to social services made in the wake of that inconvenient budget deficit have led to some of Saskatchewan’s poorest citizens facing cuts and clawbacks of their benefits.

How’s that for some desperate political treachery shrewd political strategy?

And it’s all being done in the name of streamlining several social service benefits and thereby making them more equitable. The changes will affect programs like the Saskatchewan Assured Income for Disability [SAID] — which provides funding for people with severe, enduring disabilities — and the Saskatchewan Employment Supplement [SES] — which supports low-income families with children.

In mid August, for example, 2,700 recipients of extra housing allowances under the SAID program received letters from the ministry of social services informing them that those benefits would be ending.

Even worse, they learned the extra housing benefits they had been receiving could be clawed back retroactively.

According to Peter Gilmer of the Regina Anti-Poverty Ministry, the government has attempted to justify this program cut in a couple ways.

“[Former social services minister] Donna Harpauer was trying to sell this by talking about the stacking of programs and the loss of fairness and equity because some folks may have been getting [the extra shelter allowance] and other weren’t,” says Gilmer. “Our response to that is quite simple: nobody has gotten more than they need.

“As assistance stands today, everybody has a shortfall in terms of meeting their basic needs including their rents. Best case scenario, people have been able to cover the cost of modest rent,” he says.

Gilmer says the ministry’s other justification is that with the drop in the provincial rental rate, there are more housing options for low income people so the extra shelter program is no longer needed.

“The idea is that 2,700 people can now find more affordable accommodations. Now, as we know, while the vacancy rate has indeed gone up, the rents have continued to climb as well. There hasn’t been the close correlation between higher vacancy rates and lower rents,” says Gilmer.

He continues: “Besides this being a cruel cut and a destabilizing cut for so many households, it’s also an unmanageable cut because, as those of us who work with the ministry of social services on a daily basis know, there just isn’t the staffing and human resources available for them to do case planning with all these people to work budgets out so that they can be in a more affordable place.

“And even if those resources were in place, there’s obviously no housing in place. So really, at the end of the day it means people with permanent disabilities are going to be stuck sacrificing a significant part of their incomes.”

As for the Saskatchewan Employment Supplement program, Gilmer explains that families newly accessing the program will no longer receive benefits for children 13 years of age and older — because, of course, kids are super cheap to raise once they become teenagers. However, families who were already on the program before this year had been grandfathered, and would continue to receive benefits for their teenagers.

Those families have just learned, however, that the grandfathering has been ended and their benefits will be ending.

In many cases, that change is going to impact single-parent families.

“The biggest issue in terms of income security programs as they stand today, they were inadequate to meet basic needs and this just makes it all the worse,” says Gilmer.

As for how the cuts will impact those facing reduced benefits, Gilmer says that they will have to spend more money to cover rent and that means their budgets for food and other basic needs will have to be stripped way back. And for those on SAID who are losing their extra shelter benefits, they face the whole destabilizing stress of having to find new housing while already dealing with serious disabilities.

Beyond a mere financial hit, then, the people dealing with these program cuts will likely also suffer impacts on their physical health. And that will have ramifications for the province’s healthcare system.

“Not only the social costs but the long-term financial costs are going to be much greater than anything that could be saved by this cut,” says Gilmer.

“The wise thing to do is to cancel the cut now rather than have discussions about how this can be worked out on a case by case basis because the system is not in a position to do this. The longer this drags on the more costs there will be in other areas.

“So hopefully the government will cancel the cuts.”

Despite the social services ministry getting a fresh-faced and eager new minister in Tina Beaudry-Mellor, Gilmer admits that there is little reason to hope that Brad Wall’s government will roll back these planned changes.

“We can see it basically takes a court decision. The only cases where they’ve backed down or shifted is when there’s a court decision. So in terms of change based on public reaction, we haven’t seen that yet.”

And Gilmer says this is all very disappointing and sad as, until now, Wall’s government has had much to be proud of in its anti-poverty record.

“This government did in fact bring in the SAID program and they do need to be commended for that,” says Gilmer. “It really initially made a big difference in terms of quality of life. Now we’ve had this huge rise in the cost of living, the housing side of things has really eaten away at those additional benefits. And that’s really why there was a need to be continuing to allow the extra living allowance. But with that cut people are in a situation of being bad or worse than when the program started.

“So I think this government should take some pride in this program and a recognition that this particular cut really undermines some good work that’s been done around SAID.”