R.J. Simpson: Income Assistance Review Update

Déclarations et discours de ministres

Yellowknife — 27 février 2023

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Mr. Speaker, three years ago I was given a mandate to initiate a review of the Income Assistance program to ensure its objectives, benefits, and delivery support the social and economic aspirations of the people of the NWT. Since then, the Department of Education, Culture and Employment has put a considerable amount of time and effort into fulfilling this mandate. Based on the findings of the review, the Department of Education, Culture and Employment is now in the process of finalizing the most significant changes to the Income Assistance program in a generation. These changes are supported by a proposed additional investment of over $5 million annually that will flow directly to our most vulnerable residents.

Mr. Speaker, the current Income Assistance program provides financial assistance to residents for rent and utilities, based on actual amounts, additional allowances for persons, seniors and persons with permanent disabilities, and set amounts, based on family size and community, for food, clothing, and furnishings. The program is intended to ensure a minimum standard of living, and support greater self-reliance. To determine how well we are achieving these goals, and whether these goals are still appropriate, the department conducted an extensive internal review of the program, and engaged with stakeholders and the public through virtual focus groups, online surveys and telephone interviews. A total of 363 people participated in the engagement, with representation from Indigenous governments, non-government organizations, utility providers, landlords, the public, the frontline staff who deliver the Income Assistance program, and current and past Income Assistance clients. In addition to the public engagement, the Department of Education, Culture and Employment completed a satisfaction survey, with 262 responses.

Based on this work, we are proposing to introduce two, distinct Income Assistance programs this summer.

First, we are proposing to introduce a redesigned Income Assistance program for clients ages 19 to 59.

Over the years, there have been a number of incremental changes to the Income Assistance program, including modest increases and exempting certain types of income from Income Assistance calculations. However, these increases have not kept up with inflation, the last full adjustment of benefits based on the Consumer Price Index was in 2005.

To address this issue, we are proposing to increase benefits based on the new Market Basket Measure – North, which is the Government of Canada's official measure of poverty that has been adjusted to reflect the realities of the North. This will ensure there is a clear link between the amounts provided by the program and the amounts actually needed to establish a modest, basic standard of living.

To reduce the program’s administrative burden on staff and clients, we are proposing to streamline benefits and remove the requirement to participate in a Productive Choice.

To remove barriers to employment, we are proposing to increase the amount of monthly income that can be earned before it is deducted from benefit payments from $200 plus 15 per cent of additional income to $500 plus 25 per cent of additional income. We are also proposing to remove employment-related suspensions, so clients are not suspended from the program if they try to maintain employment but are unsuccessful.

To advance reconciliation, we propose to increase the exemption for funds received from an Impact Benefit Agreements and Treaty or Land Claim Agreements from $500 per year to 100 per cent. We also propose to increase the Unearned Income Exemption from $1,200 per year to $350 per month.

Mr. Speaker, in addition to a renewed Income Assistance program, we are also proposing to introduce a new Income Assistance program for seniors and persons with disabilities. The program will be based on annual income, so clients will only need to apply and report their income once a year. By moving to an annual process with income determined using the Notice of Assessment, only taxable income would be considered when determining benefits. As such, under this new Income Assistance program, money that seniors and persons with disabilities receive from friends and family, lottery and bingo winnings, and income tax returns and GST will no longer be included as part of the assessment.

Mr. Speaker, due to the magnitude of these changes there is still much work to be done, regulations and policies must be amended, a performance measurement plan has to be developed, staff need to receive training on the new programs but we are well on our way and I look forward to updating this House as we continue to make progress on this important initiative.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker.