Islanders must be 'utterly destitute' to receive social assistance, say Greens

Islanders must be 'utterly destitute' to receive social assistance, say Greens

Prince Edward Island says it's reviewing its social assistance program as the Green Party says most employment income is clawed back and that applicants must be down to their last $50 to receive benefits.

Family and Human Services Minister Tina Mundy said changes will be announced in the coming weeks.

The news came as Green MLA Hannah Bell took the MacLauchlan government to task over social assistance policies that she said force Islanders to become "utterly destitute" before they can receive help. Bell also said the programs make it more difficult for Islanders to avoid becoming dependent on social programs.

In question period on Tuesday, Bell pointed to the province's liquid asset exemption policy, which requires a single Islander to have used up all but $50 worth of cash, savings or RRSPs before applying for short-term assistance. For long-term social assistance the level is $200.

Clawbacks questioned

"How can you say that you're caring for the most vulnerable Islanders while refusing to help anyone who has more than $50 to their name?" Bell said, asking the minister to commit to increasing the exemption level to $1,000 to match Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

Bell then criticized P.E.I.'s income exemption policy for social assistance clients who find work. A single client is allowed to retain $75 in earnings per month plus 10 per cent of the remainder, while the rest is clawed back from their benefits.

"How does clawing back their earnings encourage and empower Islanders on social assistance to move out of program dependency?" Bell asked, pointing to exemption rates in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick totalling $150 and 30 per cent of earnings.

Pilot program expanding

Mundy pointed to a pilot program last year that allowed 30 social assistance and disability support clients to earn up to $3,000 over the season as farm labourers.

"They received life coaching," Mundy told the House. "They received training. They received work clothes if they needed it, and transportation, and they were allowed to earn up to $3,000 without one cent being clawed back." 

Mundy later told reporters the same program is expanding this year to include the construction and tourism industries, though she said it's not clear how many clients will be able to participate.

As for the policy issues raised by Bell, minister Mundy said "we identified them over a year ago, that they were barriers for many of our clients." The minister said those barriers led to the development of the pilot program.

Mundy said policy changes would be announced by the end of June at the latest.

In the meantime, she pointed to recent funding initiatives, including some from the government's current budget, which she said are helping Islanders.

"We've made increases to the shelter rates, we've made increases to the food rates, we've introduced new programs, the grandparents caregiver program, the seniors independence initiative.

"We've been doing it all along," the minister added. "This is just another step or a cog in the wheel."