For low-income New Brunswickers, Higgs's inflation benefit was there and gone

·5 min read
Robert MacKay lives at a Moncton rooming house and says financial support from the province didn't help much. ( - image credit)
Robert MacKay lives at a Moncton rooming house and says financial support from the province didn't help much. ( - image credit)

For Robert MacKay, the Higgs government's emergency inflation relief cheque was the briefest of measures.

MacKay, who relies on social assistance payments and lives in a Moncton rooming house, was among the 45,600 individual New Brunswickers and 20,000 families who received the Emergency Food and Fuel Benefit this summer.

But the cheque for $225 was there and gone, he says, putting just a small dent in the debt he carries as part of his month-to-month scramble to keep up financially.

"While anything is a help — and thank you, Blaine Higgs and company — 225 dollars, a one-shot deal, doesn't touch it," said MacKay, who is on the board of the Common Front for Social Justice, a provincial anti-poverty organization.

He gets $593 per month in social assistance and falls a little bit further behind every month.

The one-time payment would mean even less to people with more expenses than he has, he adds.

"It's not covering it, and for anybody who's got a car, or pays for heating, that's just astronomical, right? Fuel oil and gasoline, and stuff like that, for them it's nothing – 225 is not much of anything."

After resisting the idea at first, Premier Blaine Higgs announced the one-time benefit on June 1, available to low-income individuals and families, including seniors, to help them cope with high inflation on basic goods such as food and fuel.

Higgs said at the time that 75,000 people were eligible for the benefit and he wanted the money sent out "right now" so that people would feel relief "over this time period."

Only people on social assistance were eligible, meaning those with jobs paying the $12.75 provincial minimum wage didn't qualify, says Janelle LeBlanc, the provincial coordinator for the Common Front.

"While it did help some people, a lot of people were left out."

The Department of Social Development says the benefit was sent to 57,400 households between June 27 and 30.

In total, 65,600 households – 45,600 individuals and 20,000 families – have received it so far.

Department spokesperson Rebecca Howland says more seniors will receive it between now and the end of December as they apply and become eligible for the Low-Income Seniors Benefit, one of the programs used to determine eligibility for the emergency benefit.

Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press
Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

She says the number of recipients may not reach 75,000 because that was an estimate at the time of the announcement. It may have counted some people twice if they were registered in two Social Development Programs.

The province budgeted $20 million for the benefit and $19.1 million has been spent until now, Howland says. Individuals receive $225 and families get $450.

LeBlanc says recipients she has heard from "appreciated that amount but it still wasn't enough to cover expenses, to cover rent, to cover groceries, to cover utilities."

Higgs said in June that while the program was a one-time payment, his government would look at more assistance if high inflation persisted 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.

In recent weeks inflation appears to have peaked, and some prices, like for gasoline, have come down.

Rather than push for another one-time benefit, LeBlanc says the Common Front will continue to lobby for lasting changes like a $20 minimum wage, increased social assistance rates and 10 employer-paid sick days each year.

"Hopefully the government can hear us and will actually do something," she said.

MacKay is on social assistance because the province considers him able to work, "even though I'm not very employable."

"I'm a hard-to-fit person, if I can put it that way," he says, citing health challenges and other "tricky times" he's been through.

The $593 he gets each month is just more than one-third of Statistic Canada's most recent "market basket measure" amount for Moncton, $1,478, a calculation of the cost of goods and services needed for "a modest, basic standard of living."

Even so, MacKay says he was always able to scrape by until inflation shot up this year.

Using flyers and an app offering virtual coupons, "I used to do pretty well. I'd save quite a few dollars every week. Now you rarely get any sales in those flyers of any consequence."

"It's astonishing," he says. Before the pandemic, he could find eggs for $2.29. "And now, my God, $3.69 on sale," he says, "sometimes, if you're lucky."

Even a $10-20 increase in a weekly grocery bill is "a lot of money for a person who's only got a few dollars to spare."

MacKay owes more than $13,000 on a line of credit he uses every month to pay off the credit cards that he has for his essential purchases and for a "frill" like a restaurant meal once or twice a month.

The emergency benefit cheque went directly onto his line of credit, barely putting a dent in the five-figure debt.

"It's something, it's a little something," he says. "To put 225 bucks on a debt is better than not putting 225 bucks on a debt."