Judy Barrett, a long-time volunteer with the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, said PEI’s food assistance rates are having a devastating effect on people.
PEI’s social assistance rates “are at sixty-one percent for Healthy Living,” based on the Federal Government’s estimate of monthly food costs . “That’s like half of what we actually need, ” said Barrett in a CBC interview.
She also said the planned increased of 9% over five years is too little too late.
“The plan right now is for an increase, but the increase is only to seventy percent and it’s going to be done over a five year period. Sixty-one to seventy percent isn’t going to make a big difference.”
Barrett said families are running out of money for groceries in the third week of the month.
“We have all kinds of families on social assistance who come to us at the third week because they’ve run out of money for groceries, and pretty basic thing. They’re not out buying seafood. It’s basic bread, milk, eggs.”
The St. Vincent de Paul charity, like other charities, tries to fill the gap between social assistance payments and what people need but they don’t have enough money.
We help “based on how much money we had because we depend on donations from parishioners. What we do is give vouchers to the Co-op Foods. For a single person we may give them forty or fifty dollars to go out, depending on their need. Just something to get them through until the first of the month when they get their payment.”
For “a family, it would vary between seventy-five and a hundred and twenty-five dollars.”
“Our mission is to help those in emergency. What we’re finding is with some of our social service clients that come to us, it’s becoming a monthly handout. It’s not fixing the problem. If this situation’s going to continue, you’re going to use up any funds fairly quickly.”
Shopping for handouts
“Many of the people coming to us, they’re going to the food bank, some even go to the soup kitchen. They’re probably getting help from family, friends, and any other churches in the area.”
“They’re shopping around for handouts. That’s got to be a pretty upsetting and demoralizing feeling for many families because if you had to go out and beg, and look for food it’s a sad reflection on our province, our society.”
The future for these families and their children is bleak, says Barrett. “I think it becomes a way of life. If you grow up in that situation, very often unless you have some mentor or someone who takes an interest in you, then these children end up in the same position as their parents.”
Minister cuts $4 million from social assistance budget
Barrett and her group met with Carol Anne Duffy, the Deputy Minister of Community Services and Seniors, to advocate for raising the food rate higher and sooner not waiting for 5 years.
“We said that wasn’t acceptable. We felt that it should be raised to a hundred percent. Social Services is supposed to supply basic needs. We felt that too, it’s ludicrous to say that you’re going to increase it nine percent and do it over five years.”
Barrett said she was shocked that the Valerie Docherty, the Minister, would cut $4 million dollars from her budget when the money is needed to feed the poor.
“We just had an announcement from Minister Docherty saying they’ve saved two point four million dollars last year, and they’re cutting two million more this year. Four point four million dollars would go a long way to increasing the amounts that these people can have.”
“We’re just looking at food rates. I mean, rental rates are well below what they should be.”
Stress of going hungry creates social problems
Barrett is aware some people criticize those on public assistance for lifestyle issues like owning a cell phone, cable or smoking.
“Each of us has things that we spend money on, that these people aren’t able to do. You can go to a movie, you can go to McDonald’s, you can take your kids to McDonald’s. None of these families are able to do that.”
“When you’re in a situation where the kids have to be fed at school because there’s no breakfast, well if you had to get up every morning and try and figure out where the money was coming from or how you were going to get some groceries to feed your kids; probably having a cigarette doesn’t look as vile to some people as what it is.”
Barrett says she does not believe the government cannot afford to spend the money it takes to help these people.
“There’s money there for many other things that aren’t essentials. People will bring up the landscaping that was done in Borden. You look at Plan B. There’s all sorts of ways that money can be taken and used for what should be most important of all, the people of our province.”
A healthy society is made from healthy, fed citizens
“If you have healthy individuals, families and children, then they’re going to be able to go out into the workforce, look for jobs. They’re going to be healthier so there’s less of a strain. I think it would also make a difference to our justice system because when you’re under strain all the time to get money or to find enough to eat, then people get into doing things that they normally wouldn’t do.”
“I think all the way around we will save money. We have a lot of poverty here, we have a lot of people living in substandard conditions. Government doesn’t seem to pay a whole lot of attention to that.”
Thanks to Laura Chapin, CBC Radio for the interview and to Judy Barrett for her candour.
From Stephen Pate, NJN Network