Premier Andrew Furey announced a poverty reduction plan on Thursday that includes boosts to income support and child benefit payments. (Chelsea Jacobs/CBC)
The government of Newfoundland and Labrador released a substantial poverty reduction plan Wednesday with three main areas of focus: reducing childhood poverty, improving income supports and encouraging sustainable employment.
The strategy will be rolled out over the next two to three years, with spending that will grow to $85 million annually after three years.
"I'm proud to say that as a government we're placing a heightened focus on the social determinants of health, both in our spending and our policy directives," Premier Andrew Furey said at the plan's announcement, at the YMCA in St. John's.
"This is a big day for the province. A big day for children across Newfoundland and Labrador. A big day for all."
In 2015, the province had the third-highest percentage of people in poverty. In 2021 the province ranked seventh. The provincial government attributes the reduction in poverty to federal support provided after the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The most recent figures indicate 22,000 people in the province are currently on income support, with about 9,000 children living in low-income households.
Focusing first on reducing childhood poverty, the province plans to increase child benefit payments by 300 per cent. The non-taxable benefit is paid monthly to help with the cost of raising children under 18 years old. Payments will jump from $921 for families with two children, for example, to $3,684.
The province is also expanding the prenatal early childhood nutrition supplement — $150 a month that assists with the costs of healthy eating during pregnancy and until the child's first birthday — adding four more years until the child is five years old. An additional 2,000 families will receive the benefit, according to the government.
The province's school lunch program will be expanded, by need and capacity, to all junior kindergarten to Grade 9 schools. That program is expected to begin by next fall and cost about $10 million.
Neria Aylward, executive director of the Jimmy Pratt Foundation, says she has some concerns about the provincial government's poverty reduction plan. (Chelsea Jacobs/CBC)
"It's always good to see more money into the hands of the poorest children," Neria Aylward, executive director of children's advocacy group the Jimmy Pratt Foundation, told reporters after the announcement.
"That said, we're kind of worried about how many children this is actually going to reach. The cutoffs for these children's programs are actually very, very low, and families that you would expect would qualify for these programs actually don't."
Aylward said the cutoff is about $25,736 for a family.
The province is also streamlining income support benefits in an effort to deliver them more quickly. That includes fewer separate benefit rates, increasing flexibility so benefit amounts are less dependent on household living arrangements and improving the ease of access.
Premier Andrew Furey said that step, which collapses 30 programs into six, is what he believes is universal basic income.
"When you look at a basic income, that's generally what happens. You collapse these programs so that they are able to be provided through a basic income altogether, to eliminate the complexity altogether, so people can get the support that they need," he said.
"We've already struck a all-party committee on universal basic income. We've taken the extraordinary approach to having targeted basic income. Right now, we'll see how the work continues with the all-party committee, but a move like today does certainly signal that having 40 or 30 complex programs is not achieving what we want it to achieve."
That comment by the premier struck a chord with Dan Meades, provincial co-ordinator of the Transition House Association of Newfoundland and Labrador.
"It's the biggest news this premier has made since he entered politics, without question. I don't know why it wasn't the top line on the poverty reduction plan," said Meades.
"If he believes that universal basic income is the right step forward — he can implement it, he's the premier of the province — if this is the first step, I'm excited."
Community groups were in attendance at the YMCA in St. John's on Wednesday to hear about the province's new poverty reduction plan. (Chelsea Jacobs/CBC)
Most changes among the newly launched poverty reduction plan will be ushered in over the next few years. Some items will begin to see changes as early as March.
The most immediate boost will be seen in the comforts allowance benefit for people living in temporary accommodations such as shelters. The provincial government is raising that allowance benefit from $125 a month to $175 beginning in one week.
The province will add a targeted basic income for people between 60 and 64 years old who are currently receiving basic monthly financial support. That amount will equal the federal seniors' benefits and provide higher monthly incomes through a single source, according to the province. That program change will begin in April.
For working adults, the province aims to promote incentives and supports to encourage labour market participation — transitioning those people away from income support to work.
There's also a new non-employment insurance eligible support program that will provide training to support people who are not eligible for employment insurance to attend post-secondary schools. It will include funding for a living allowance, child care and the cost of the training.
The training will prioritize post-secondary programs with entrance requirements suitable for people with no previous post-secondary education, a history of low-paying jobs and connections to income support.
Furey said a similar poverty reduction announcement targeted toward seniors is coming within the next few months.