New inflation relief program targets 'most vulnerable' in New Brunswick

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A $20 million program aimed at helping New Brunswickers cope with increasing fuel and food prices was announced Wednesday. (Robert Jones/CBC - image credit)
A $20 million program aimed at helping New Brunswickers cope with increasing fuel and food prices was announced Wednesday. (Robert Jones/CBC - image credit)

The Higgs government says it will distribute a one-time payment to low-income New Brunswickers to help them deal with soaring gasoline and grocery bills.

The Emergency Fuel and Food Benefit will see low-income individuals receive $225 and low-income families, including seniors, receive $450.

More than 75,000 people are eligible, and the money will go to people already receiving low-income or housing benefits from the Department of Social Development, the province said in a news release.

"We wanted to get it to a targeted group, a group we could roll it out quickly to, and they could feel the benefit right now, over this time period," Premier Blaine Higgs told reporters.

Ed Hunter/CBC
Ed Hunter/CBC

The total cost of the program will be $20 million, and the money will go out this month, the premier said.

The release doesn't say when the money will be distributed, but Higgs said Tuesday that the program would get money out "quickly," sometime this month.

That represents a reversal for Higgs.

Earlier this spring, he suggested that he'd have to wait until the third quarter of the fiscal year to see sales tax revenues and decide if a rebate or some other form of relief was affordable, or if people were cutting back enough on gas to deprive the province of a tax windfall.

But Wednesday, the premier said it appears gas consumption is remaining steady, "and that gave us some confidence that we'd have some money that we could put into the system."

Opposition says not enough

The benefit was immediately denounced as not enough to address the high cost of living, particularly for New Brunswickers not on social assistance but who are still struggling because of soaring costs.

"They're still at a threshold where it's very difficult," said Opposition Liberal Leader Roger Melanson, who repeated his call for a cut to the provincial gas tax.

Green Party Leader David Coon questioned why the Higgs government keeps implementing one-off, short-term assistance programs like the cap on rent increases, which applies for this year only.

"What is it with this one-time-only government?" he said.

The Greens have proposed a higher harmonized sales tax rebate for people who earn minimum wage or who are considered the working poor. They also wants Higgs to move up a minimum wage increase scheduled for this fall.

Janelle LeBlanc, the provincial co-ordinator for the Common Front for Social Justice, said the government must implement longer-term solutions to poverty, including a higher minimum wage, higher social assistance benefits and free public transit.

"The measures announced today are important and necessary for existing clients of Social Development. However, it does exclude many people living in poverty, and low-income workers. We would have liked to see more permanent solutions."

Province to reconsider in fall

Higgs said that while the program is a one-time payment, his government would look at more assistance if high inflation persists into the fall.

He also wouldn't rule out broadening the program beyond social assistance recipients if that becomes necessary.

"I don't rule out some sort of program in that case," he said.

But he added that the province itself is facing $100 million in higher costs because of inflation, and N.B. Power could take a similar hit.

Higgs said that means it's too early to say if the province will be able to run a budget surplus as projected this year.

"We didn't plan on this when we put a budget together," he said. "Our goal is not to amass a surplus. Our goal is ensure that if we can put money into the pockets of people who need it in these times of uncertainty, we can do it sustainably and prudently."

The government is also giving food banks in the province an additional $1 million on top of an earlier $1 million grant this spring.

The government is facing two byelections in the Miramichi area on June 20.

Last week, a new poll by Narrative Research said 52 per cent of respondents were dissatisfied with the government's performance compared to 40 per cent who were satisfied.

The current maximum price per litre of regular gasoline is $2.08 in New Brunswick, up from $1.44 at the start of the year.

The province's news release points out that it has raised social assistance rates and the minimum wage, has cut income taxes, has rent-cap legislation before the legislature and is lowering child care costs effective this month as part of a federal-provincial agreement.

The release does not mention people on disability benefits being eligible for the program.

"I would say so," Higgs told reporters when asked if they were included, though he later said that "it would be my intent that would apply as well."

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