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VIBERT: Artist’s case belies lofty claims

Jim Vibert
Jim Vibert - SaltWire Network

Welfare reform sounds good in theory, which is fortunate because, after four years of trying, it appears the Nova Scotia government can only deliver welfare reform in theory.

In practice, the provincial Community Services Department remains a hidebound bureaucracy incapable of stepping outside the comfort of its rules to do the right thing by a disabled Nova Scotian whose initiative, according to the rulebook, the government must punish rather than support.

The province is clawing back every penny of the $650 monthly income Josh Dunn earns from an Arts Nova Scotia grant he also earned through an arduous, months-long effort to write a winning grant application.

Halifax resident Josh Dunn says the Department of Community Services is unfairly deducting all the income he was supposed to earn from an Arts Nova Scotia Grant from his income assistance cheques. - Andrew Rankin
Halifax resident Josh Dunn says the Department of Community Services is unfairly deducting all the income he was supposed to earn from an Arts Nova Scotia Grant from his income assistance cheques. - Andrew Rankin

Dunn’s story stands in sharp contrast to the government’s lofty claims that its reforms to Income Assistance (IA) are delivering more flexible income supports based on the individual needs and circumstances of the recipients.

From the perspective of IA recipients — or clients, as the department calls them — the big change allows them to keep more earned income without losing their provincial income support.

In the reformed, client-centred, flexible world the government’s selling, but apparently not delivering, the department’s case workers are empowered to do the right thing by IA recipients, rather than simply apply rules and check boxes to determine IA eligibility.

Enter Josh Dunn, a young Nova Scotian man with multiple disabilities and a boatload of talent. He wrote a successful application and got a $12,000 grant to finance a film about the challenges people with disabilities face finding romance.

Rather than support his efforts to tell the very human stories of disabled Nova Scotians, the department financially penalized him.

If this is the result of four years of working to reform welfare in Nova Scotia, the department wasted its time, wasted Nova Scotians’ tax dollars and created expectations it cannot meet. At the top of the list is the expectation that the province would treat IA recipients as the people they are, rather than as cases to be judged against pre-determined criteria.

Community Services says the meagre salary Dunn earns from the film — he’s one of its central characters — falls into the category of self-employment, and their current rules discourage that kind of personal initiative.

If Dunn had taken a traditional job, earning a wage by slinging burgers or pouring double-doubles, he’d keep $450 of his earnings on top of his IA. Instead, after docking him the $650, the province provided Dunn with $195 in November.

Dunn lives with a number of serious disabilities, including cerebral palsy, which make it impossible for him to fit into the traditional clock-punching wage-earning job the department seems to believe suits its clients.

His film work was deemed “business income” and the paternalistic province simply can’t have IA recipients striking out on their own.

The department did say it plans to review and make changes to its rules around self-employment next year — Year 5 of welfare reform.

“The Department of Community Services (DCS) wants to provide improved incentives to better support individuals who are involved in self-employment and entrepreneurial activities. We have heard from our staff, as well as from stakeholders and clients through community meetings and roundtable discussions that we need to change our self-employment policy for income assistance (IA) clients,” the department wrote in response to questions about this story.

Next year is too late for Josh Dunn.

It would seem the province has a couple of reasonable options here. The best is to admit its error and assess Dunn’s income in the same way it would assess earned income from the kind of jobs the department expects its clients to take.

Or, it can admit that welfare reform in Nova Scotia is really about replacing old rules with new rules, but that the rules are sacrosanct and all that talk about individuals being assessed as people was hokum that they didn’t expect anyone to swallow in the first place.

But, if past practice is the guide, the government will simply ride it out. Josh Dunn’s story will fade from public view, and ministers and senior bureaucrats, after a time, will go back to singing the praises of a government that knows how to pretend it has a heart, if not much of a head.

RELATED: Living with disabilities, Halifax artist says system is failing him

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