ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — The Newfoundland and Labrador government is launching a basic income program for residents aged 60 to 64, part of a poverty reduction plan announced Wednesday that some advocates say could make a real difference.
Premier Andrew Furey told reporters that the three-year phased plan will streamline the province's income support program while expanding support for low-income families with children and for people looking to upgrade their skills to leave low-paying jobs.
"The social determinants of health have a far greater impact on well-being than the health-care system itself," said Furey, who is an orthopedic surgeon. "I'm proud to say that as a government, we are placing a heightened focus on the social determinants of health, both in our spending and our policy directives."
About 20 years ago, Newfoundland and Labrador's then-Progressive Conservative government launched a poverty reduction strategy that food insecurity researchers still cite as an example. Its measures to boost income support levels and index them to inflation led to deep cuts in the province's rates of hunger.
Those measures have since ended, and the province now has the highest rate of food insecurity among children in the country, a report last year from the Proof research group at the University of Toronto found. Government information provided to reporters before Furey's announcement said the province also has the highest rate of child poverty in the country.
Furey said his government was particularly focused on tackling those figures. He announced that a program providing a $150-a-month supplement to low-income families with young children would be extended from a child's first year of life to their first five years. And the province's child benefit, also aimed at low-income families, will increase by 300 per cent.
Beginning in September, the government will work to expand lunch and breakfast programs to every kindergarten to Grade 9 school in the province, he added.
Residents aged 60-64 who use the province's income and community support programs will be eligible for a basic income, which will provide the equivalent of the federal seniors benefits. The government will work to streamline its entire social assistance program, reducing the existing 30 programs to six, and detangling the voluminous rules and regulations to make income support more accessible for those who need it.
The province will also continue a program allowing those who find a job while on income support to keep more of their benefits. And it will launch an initiative to support people who want to leave low-income jobs and train for higher-paying jobs.
Josh Smee, chief executive of Food First N.L., said the strategy revealed Wednesday is a good start toward lifting people out of poverty in Canada's easternmost province. He said the measures aimed at curbing child poverty have a lot of promise, and he was pleased to hear the province would simplify its income support programs.
"If you talk to anybody with lived experience of them, (you'll hear) just how much of a thicket navigating income support and those kinds of programs can be," Smee said in an interview. However, he noted that he and other advocates have long been calling for the province to once again index its social assistance rates to inflation, which is not part of the new poverty strategy.
"Because otherwise, we'll have to have this conversation all over again in a few years when the rates deteriorate relative to people's condition, and there's no sense to that," he said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 8, 2023.
Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press