Can Nunavut’s welfare system be reformed?
Education Minister James Arvaluk has announced that his department now plans to do what the Government of the Northwest Territories has already tried and failed to accomplish — reform of the territorial welfare system.
In a minister’s statement made during the last sitting of the legislative assembly in Iqaluit, Arvaluk repeated all the old cliches about welfare reform that the GNWT used several years ago in a previous attempt to change the system.
Between 1993 and 1995, armed with a $12 million hand-out from the newly re-organized federal Department of Human Resources Development, the government of the Northwest Territories set out on its on own income support reform process. Using various groups of NWT welfare recipients as guinea pigs, they spent Ottawa’s hand-out money on a large number of failed experiments, or “pilot projects.” They also created a touring committee called the “ministerial forum on income support reform,” which produced much talk and much paper.
This expensive undertaking accomplished next to nothing, other than the creation of a polite new weasel-word for welfare. The term “income support” eventually replaced the term “social assistance” within the territorial lexicon.
Will Nunavut succeed where Yellowknife and Ottawa failed? Perhaps. But Arvaluk and his officials don’t appear to have much room to manoeuver.
For example, his officials must find a way around one of Nunavut’s biggest disincentives to work: the Nunavut Housing Corporation’s social housing rent scales. Right now, many families and individuals who live in social housing are better off staying on welfare — because as soon as someone in the household gets a job their rent goes up dramatically.
This situation suggests that Nunavut needs one of two things: either a change in social housing rent scales, or an extension of the income support program to help the working poor. Either option would likely require the spending of new money that the Nunavut government doesn’t have and isn’t likely to find any time soon.
Arvaluk also says in his statement that he would like to change the image of his department “to one that is employment and education focused.” This implies that his department would like to build incentives into the welfare system that would encourage welfare recipients to go back to school. If so, this is a laudable objective.
But Nunavut’s advanced education system is now oriented towards the training of civil servants, not welfare recipients who need basic adult education. Many of those who require upgrading in basic literacy and numeracy skills were left out when the Nunavut officials were spending the $39.9 million training fund that Ottawa provided for Nunavut-related training programs.
Again, how can the Nunavut government achieve the goal of providing basic literacy training to social assistance recipients without spending money that the government doesn’t have?
In undertaking a review of Nunavut’s welfare system, Arvaluk and his officials have undertaken a tough job. They at least deserve credit for trying — and for opening the subject up to some badly needed discussion. JB