By Marie Burge (commentary)
Earlier this month, the P.E.I. Working Group for a Livable Income invited Carol Anne Duffy, Deputy Minister of Community Services and Seniors and staff to a community consultation. Three of the community groups/coalitions present had participated in a preliminary meeting with the deputy minister and staff in relation to the department’s five-year plan for food rate increases for social assistance clients.
Groups making presentations were the P.E.I. Working Group for a Livable Income; the Medical Society of P.E.I.; the P.E.I. Healthy Eating Alliance/UPEI; P.E.I. Council of People with Disabilities; St. Vincent de Paul Society, Holy Redeemer Parish; P.E.I. Food Security Network; and the P.E.I. Advisory Council on the Status of Women. Also in attendance and participating in the discussions were: ALERT; Women’s Network P.E.I.; Actions Femmes Î.-P.-É.; and Cooper Institute.
From the beginning of the meeting, the community groups expressed their appreciation to the deputy minister and staff, who had accepted the invitation to meet. The community groups involved are not necessarily in full agreement with each other with respect to approaches and desired immediate outcomes. However they agree on long term goal of ensuring that all Islanders have their basic needs met. The presentations, specifically related to the five-year plan for Food Rate Increases for social assistance clients, concurred on the encouraging points of the plan and on some unacceptable aspects
The positive comments were: that the plan is an actual plan in that there are goals and measurable objectives; that it is a 5-year plan, longer term than previous plans; that for the first time it is proposing to index social assistance payments to CPI; that the plan represents an increase in food allowance over five years and that it would base food rates on actual costs of a nutritious food basket.
The community groups expressed a general consensus on the deficiencies, and even unacceptability, of some key elements of the plan. Strongest of these is that the plan is accepting that at the end of five years people on social assistance would receive less than 100 percent of the estimated cost of a healthy diet. Community participants remarked that this would mean that the Government of P.E.I. would consider it acceptable that social assistance clients would live on less food than they need.
The Department estimates that it would cost about $8 million to bring the payment up to 100 percent of the required food-cost allotment. Another strong objection to the proposed plan is that allotments are based not on P.E.I. data, but on the data collections of other Atlantic Provinces. Local food costing is a long-standing debate in the community; P.E.I. has its own unique social context. It is not costly to do local research, and research capability is readily available.
There was an important discussion around the serious health risks for people who do not have sufficient income to meet their basic needs. Many prevalent diseases, including, diabetes, obesity, extreme constant anxiety and depression are proven to be effects of low income and inadequate nutritious food. Furthermore, it is now well documented that high health care costs are related to low income. A practicing family physician, at the consultation emphasized the futility of trying to treat patients, for whom it is clear that they are ill because they do not have enough to live on.
There were a number of remarks which the community groups pointed directly at the Government of Prince Edward Island: that government needs not just a change of mind, but a change of heart; that real dignity-based care of people on the margins does not seem to be a high priority; that the problem is not lack of money, but the problem is the setting of priorities which determine that some sectors are well funded and other sectors are neglected.
The exchange was cordial, open, and respectful. Most agreed that this form of consultation could be a good model within government, and for governments’ dialogue with the community. It was suggested that this type of meeting could continue, perhaps yearly or more often. In general, it was clear that the community and the Department of Community Services and Seniors are motivated to respond effectively to, and find solutions for, the anxieties and sufferings of people in P.E.I. who do not have adequate income to cover even their most basic needs.
Marie Burge is a member of the P.E.I. Working Group for a Livable Income.