Convoluted Regulations Prevent Students from Accessing Income Assistance

MAY 11, 2015 BY MOIRA DONOVAN: Halifax Examiner: read it here (behind paywall)

        Minister of Community Services Joanne Bernard

       Minister of Community Services Joanne Bernard

A student in Dalhousie’s Transition Year Programme has had her income assistance cut by the Department of Community Services, prompting the Dalhousie Student Union and community groups to call on the government to revise the Employment Support and Income Assistance Act.

Section 67 of the Employment Support and Income Assistance Act states that anyone attending a post-secondary program for a period longer than two years is not eligible for income assistance.

Lori Anne Willis is set to graduate this week from the Transition Year Program (TYP), an access-to-university program that provides university preparation for students looking to move into an undergraduate degree. She hopes to start a Bachelor of Medical Sciences in January, and from there to go on to medical school.

But back in November, when Willis was still attending the transition year program, her income assistance was cut off.

Although that assistance was recently restored, the fact that she had to go three months without any support makes her anxious about the likelihood of stable assistance in the future.

“I feel like I’m being discriminated against from obtaining a proper education… A lot of people aren’t going to continue to go to university if they’re going to be cut off [assistance], it’s not viable.”

Willis has three daughters; she wants to go to university not only to get a job so that she can support them – support she says is nearly impossible to provide while on income assistance – but also so that they’re encouraged to see university as achievable for themselves.

“I want to be able to support my kids and contribute to their education…and I want to get to a point where I’m educated and have a good job. I already feel bad enough because I’m dependent on welfare, so that’s a big issue for me.”

Prior to 2000, university students were eligible for income assistance; before the regulations were changed, there were roughly 1600 students on income assistance in Nova Scotia, among them the current Minister of Community Services Joanne Bernard.

In a Chronicle Herald article from August 2003, Bernard is quoted as saying that “social assistance was crucial in my being able to be in university”, that she couldn’t imagine what it would be like to attend university under the new regulations, and that education was essential in escaping from the cycle of poverty.

Now that Willis is trying to follow the same path out of poverty, she says she’s finding that there are “too many stumbling blocks” in the way.

In 2006, a Supreme Court ruling stipulated that someone on income assistance couldn’t be denied access to university. In response. the provincial government instituted a “program that they don’t tell anyone about,” says Evan Coole, Willis’ Legal Counsel. “No one knows this program exists and they don’t really advertise it.”

This program is Career Seek, under which university students can receive income assistance to cover living expenses, though not tuition, provided they meet certain stringent requirements. These include proving that they’re otherwise unable to find work and that they’re able to cover all costs related to attending university – tuition, textbooks, childcare, and transportation – through loans or other means. “They make it really difficult [to qualify] and then don’t cover the cost of tuition which makes it even more confusing,” says Coole.

It isn’t just the strict regulations themselves that make things difficult, Willis says; it’s also the way that they’re administered.

“[DCS] is not being clear, that’s one of the biggest issues.”

Willis was denied ongoing income assistance after she missed two appointments with her employment support worker, as per Department policy on employment support services.

But since she was in a training program – and had given the Department ample notice of her plans to attend TYP – she assumed she was covered by the Career Seek program, which should have exempted her from attending those appointments in the first place, says Coole.

The fact that Willis was denied assistance regardless shows how confusing and arbitrarily enforced the regulations are, says DSU VP Academic and External John Hutton.

The Department of Community Services could not be reached for comment at the time of publication.

Willis has an appeal hearing on Wednesday that will confirm whether she’s covered by the Career Seek program in the future. If she wins, it’s hoped that the government will also revoke regulation 67, says Coole.

There may be things that universities can do to better support students on social assistance, such as providing better bursaries to cover tuition and offering free child care on campus, but those students have to be able to get in the door first.

“Regulation 67 is the barrier,” says Hutton. “Leadership needs to come from the government on this front.”