Social assistance budget not spent almost defies belief

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‘No one turned away seeking help’ excuse just doesn’t justify department’s decision

Almost lost amid the exchange of verbal barbs in the legislature Friday about a $16 Toronto hotel room upgrade for Community Services Minister Valerie Docherty was the observation that her department did not spend its full budget amount last year on social assistance and other support programs. More than $2.3 million was unspent in 2013, and as a result, this year the department has reduced its budget for social support programs by close to $2 million.

The revelation is astonishing. Ms. Docherty said  the reason for the surplus and subsequent reduced budget was because the need is less. Under questioning, the minister stated no one seeking social assistance was turned away.

There can be only two logical conclusions. Either the need actually was less, which seems hard to believe, or the threshold and criteria to qualify for social assistance has changed to disenfranchise many people.

For the demand to be less, it must mean that many Islanders on assistance have found employment or better jobs here; or have left the province for jobs and a better life elsewhere. If no one seeking help was turned away, then we must congratulate the minister on living within her budget, saving Island taxpayers $2.3 million and being able to operate on a smaller budget for the coming fiscal year.

It’s a refreshing change to see a government department conduct its operations in such a fashion.

But . . .

We have heard Ms. Docherty respond to past criticisms that she could do more for the poor and seniors if she had more money, especially with housing. Why are we still hearing that the food bank is serving record numbers of Islanders who can’t afford good nutrition? Why are we still hearing that the emergency oil-heating program administered by the Salvation Army on behalf of government ran through its budget almost before the program started?

Why are we hearing from social action groups, Opposition parties and many others pleading for an increase in social assistance rates because many Islanders have to make a decision — heat their homes or feed their families? They can’t do both. Adequate housing, medical expenses and proper clothing are other vital issues.

And then we hear the department under-spent its budget?

Did the province change the rules for eligibility? Something doesn’t add up. The Opposition must get to the bottom of this or Ms. Docherty should more fully explain what is going on.

Shocked reaction from anti-poverty groups and people on welfare is already coming in. Why didn’t the minister increase social assistance rates when she had the money to do so? The optics are that the government was able to reduce its deficit on the backs of those most in need.

Now the money is gone. Other departments might have an excuse. But seniors and social welfare?

How did this happen?

Organizations: Toronto hotel, Community Services, Salvation Army

Geographic location: Iceland

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