Regina mother and poverty experts say Saskatchewan’s social safety net is falling behind

Everything seems to get more expensive. Food, gas and housing prices are on the rise, while paychecks are slow to keep pace.

CBC News’ Priced Out series explains why you pay more at checkout and how Canadians cope with the high cost of everything.

Miranda Hanis can barely afford the Regina basement apartment she lives in. The pandemic has only made things worse.

“The last year and a half has been really difficult and uncertain. It’s been very difficult to make plans for the future,” Hanis said.

She said the Saskatchewan Income Support (SIS) check she receives each month is the only thing keeping a roof over her head. She gets $860 a month from SIS, but it’s not enough to live on.

“My finances have been pretty tight between me and my son, and I don’t know where I would live if I didn’t live with my son. And he works part-time. Finances are pretty tight between him and me,” says- she.

With the cost of almost everything rising, Hanis said she had to turn to food banks for help.

“I could buy meat a little before, but now it’s like I look at it and say ‘Whoa.’ If it’s not discounted, it won’t happen. It’s winter, the products are really hard to buy. It’s hard.

Hanis was fired a few years ago and hasn’t been able to get a new job since. The day after he lost his job, the price of his low-cost housing rose.

“Most of my savings, most of my money is gone. It happened in two days. And I haven’t been able to bounce back since.”

High levels of poverty

Hanis’ case is not isolated. A recent report from the University of Regina shows that nearly 20% of the province’s population lives in poverty, with the child poverty rate at 26%.

“Saskatchewan and Manitoba are two of the Canadian provinces with the highest poverty rates in the country. The level of benefits is absolutely inadequate,” said Miguel Sanchez, associate professor at the University of Regina’s Faculty of Social Work.

Sanchez said Saskatchewan has one of the worst poverty rates in the country.

“The depth of poverty is the amount of money a family living below the poverty line needs to reach the poverty line,” he said.

Anti-poverty advocates accuse the SIS, which came into effect in August 2021, of replacing previous programs. The change reduced the amount of money going to most residents on welfare.

Under the SIS program, clients are assigned a housing budget and must pay rent and utilities themselves each month from the money given to them. Under SIS, a single adult receives $575 per month for housing and utilities, and an additional $285 per month for food and all other expenses.

Peter Gilmer, a social worker with the Department of Anti-Poverty in Regina, says insufficient funding for the SIS is causing extreme and deep poverty in the province. (Kirk Fraser/CBC)

Peter Gilmer, a social worker with the Department of Anti-Poverty in Regina, said he saw more and more people struggling every day to make ends meet under SIS.

“It’s a very tough position people have to make between food, utilities and being able to keep a roof over their heads,” he said. “The worst thing is that people are being forced into abject homelessness.”

He said the SIS was at the root of extreme and growing poverty in the province.

“We see people having to make extremely difficult decisions. People are getting more and more desperate. The stress levels of the people we work with are at an all time high,” he said. “So what we’re definitely asking for is to ensure that the benefits of SIS and other programs are increased.”

Social assistance not indexed to inflation

Welfare programs have not kept pace with Canada’s rate of inflation. Year-over-year prices rose faster in January 2022 than in December 2021 in six provinces, according to Statistics Canada.

Year-over-year prices rose 5.7% in Ontario, 5.5% in Manitoba and 4.2% in Saskatchewan, as higher electricity prices contributed to these gains.

According to the anti-poverty group Maytree, only Quebec and New Brunswick link their social income programs to inflation.

“For a long time in Canada, welfare incomes and social assistance in particular have not been a high priority for governments. Since social assistance programs are not indexed in most jurisdictions, rates have fallen,” said Mohy Tabbara, policy adviser at Maytree Group.

“If you look at welfare rates over time, the amount people get over time has gone down over time because of the lack of indexation. And what’s happening right now is just ‘worse the situation.’

Tabbara said the pandemic has made things worse for Canadians on welfare.

“Social assistance programs are grossly inadequate across the country,” he said.

Mohy Tabbara, policy adviser at the Maytree Group, says welfare income rates will be increased and indexed to inflation. (Submitted by Mohy Tabbara)

Tabbara is calling for welfare income rates to be increased and indexed to inflation.

“In a country like Canada, we should really try to provide adequate support and give people a dignified life, and that’s not happening right now,” Tabbara said.

As for Hanis, she said that with little help and job prospects in sight, it is difficult to hope for a bright future.

“There is no dignity in this program. They took it away too.”

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