“Proverty hurts.”

Those are the words of a Kivalliq grandmother who tries to help out her daughter, one of Nunavut’s many income assistance recipients.

Changes are being made to Nunavut’s income assistance program under the Department of Family Services. Among them is the possibility of making 19 the age of eligibility rather than 18.
Pixabay photo

Poverty also costs the territorial government a tremendous sum: the budget for income assistance in 2019-20 was $62 million. The program supported 6,113 heads of households for at least one month in 2019 – approximately 37 per cent of Nunavummiut – according to Jarrett Parker, director of income assistance with the Department of Family Services.

The Kivalliq grandmother, who asked not to be named, said she lives on a government pension and also collects the Canada Pension Plan. When she can spare it, she sends $100 to her daughter, who lives in a home with 10 other people and has several mouths to feed.

“I don’t like kids hungry so I will help my daughter, but she still (has) to report every lil’ bit of money she’s given in her income support… can’t lie to government. I know some that have to show bank statements, and that’s a bit too much” said the Kivalliq grandmother, who added, “but when I am broke I give her a bag of food from here (in) my home.”

Another mother hailing from the Kivalliq, who also requested anonymity, said she hopes policies will change in regards to gifts with monetary value given to relatives.

“If we buy them a plane ticket to visit family members it is deducted, also if we send a little bit of money by EMT (electronic money transfer) that is deducted as well,” the mother said. “They request their bank statement to deduct everything they receive. I think that’s unfair, yes – would be nice to see change.”

Changes are in the offing for the income assistance program. The topic received plenty of attention during legislative assembly’s winter sitting.

The current practice of deducting income benefits from clients who receive more than $40 in monthly unearned income – such as through gifts from others or bingo or other lottery winnings – is one of the items being reviewed, Family Services Minister Elisapee Sheutiapik acknowledged. During the winter sitting of the legislative assembly in March, Sheutiapik said among the other areas being examined are the possibility of changing eligibility for income assistance to age 19 instead of 18, coordinating income assistance with income support programs, improving access to other income supports and financial services, exploring case management teams and reviewing internal roles and responsibilities for income assistance. The department is also working towards a direct deposit system so payments go directly into clients’ bank accounts.

Call for comprehensive review

However, the minister expressed hope that income assistance won’t be under such a widespread burden for the long-term.

“Hopefully people will be coming off income support… through income support they will eventually be resilient,” she said.

Arviat North-Chesterfield Inlet MLA Cathy Towtongie sees things differently.

“We all know that income support should be a short-term solution, but for all of Nunavut there is a general lack of places to find work,” Towtongie said in the legislative assembly in March. “We get concerned about personal bank accounts when they are looked into by the Department of Family Services. When parents give money to their children, it gets investigated… I would like a comprehensive review of income support so that they can initiate something that is made in Nunavut for Nunavut.”

In the NWT, the earned income exemption is up to $1,200 within a 12-month period per household.

Earned income – from employment or other activities that include payments or honoraria – is capped at $400 plus 15 per cent for families and $200 + 15 per cent for single applicants.

In Nunavut, single clients can keep $500 of earned income per month before income assistance deductions while those with families can retain up to $700 of earned income without penalty.

Parker said income assistance is a “needs-based” eligibility program that is assessed monthly. He noted that child tax payments, foster parent payments and the acquisition of essential equipment for hunting and trapping would be examples of items that are not counted against clients’ income assistance benefits.

He said the Department of Family Services has demonstrated “finesse” and “flexibility” in determining eligibility and assessing criteria, particularly because jobs are so limited in some communities.

“Our goal is to get people into education or employment as soon as possible,” he said, acknowledging Covid-19 is putting a significant dent in many realms of life. “Really, the economy of Nunavut depends on our people working here. We want to move the (longer-term) focus from getting people money to getting them the supports they require to become self-sufficient… even having part-time jobs helps people move ahead a bit.”

Fact file
Comparing income assistance by territory

All three territories adjust income assistance based on cost of living. Those residing in capital cities are usually entitled to less than residents in more remote communities.

The figures below are monthly income assistance ranges for a household with two adults and two children.

Nunavut

Basic allowance ranges from $1,373-$1,553

Utilities and rent are paid at actual cost, except room rental (capped at $800) and room and board (capped at $1,200).

Sundry allowance (formerly known as a clothing allowance) – $50 per person

NWT

Yellowknife

Food – $480

Clothing – $110

Actual cost of rent, power, water and sewage is covered

Inuvik

Food – $690

Clothing – $139

Community cost adjustment – $100

Actual cost of power, water and sewage is covered

Actual cost of rent, power, water and sewage is covered

Yukon

Whitehorse (for food, clothing and incidentals) – $1,343-$1,460.

A family of four is also eligible for $955 in shelter allowance and a utility allowance ($490 June-September; $554 April, May, October; $620 November-March)

In communities outside of Whitehorse, standard monthly benefits range from $1,456-$1,573

A family of four is also eligible for $955 in shelter allowance and a utility allowance ($521 June-September; $586 April, May, October; $652 November-March)

Sources: Governments of Nunavut, NWT and Yukon

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Derek Neary has been reporting on developments in the North for 18 years. When he's not writing for Nunavut News, he's working on Northern News Services' special publications such as Opportunities North,...