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Listen to people trapped in the system before cutting social services

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Photo: Jeff Milner/flickr

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Community Services Minister Joanne Bernard says she knows the province's welfare system is "broken... None of the systems and none of the policies and the way we serve people has changed in many decades."

That's why her government announced last week it is forking out up to $2 million to consultants to "vision," "design," "transform" and "right" that system so more of the 44,000 Nova Scotians now trapped in the belly of the community services beast can live "independent of income assistance."

Uh...

Would that her department had spent five minutes -- not even five cents -- consulting with provincial  charities before cutting close to half a million dollars last spring from groups that provide actual assistance to those dealing with blindness, deafness, special needs children, individuals with intellectual disabilities, people with eating disorders, immigrants...

Without apparently questioning any of those helping groups -- "we didn't have much information about what they did," Bernard said at the time -- her department slashed their funding.

Why?

In the words of Kathleen Flanagan, the executive director of the Community Sector Council of Nova Scotia, a group that speaks for many charities: "these are the places where [they] can cut ... These are organizations that are not rich and powerful."

To make matters worse for those trying to get by on the scraps from the community services table, the government also slapped a two-year freeze on income assistance payments to save money.

So it could... hire high-priced consultants.

Don't get me wrong. I agree with Bernard the system is a mess, and has been for years. Whenever I've written about some specific case of injustice within the community services umbrella, I am inevitably inundated with more similar-fact complaints than I could ever investigate or write about.

But before Bernard throws up her hands -- "we do not have the expertise within our own department" -- and contracts out solving the problems to consultants who've probably never endured them, she would do well to listen more closely to those now trapped inside the system. And those who work with them on a daily basis. And use the $2 million to provide actual assistance to help those who can to live independently, and those who can't to live in dignity.

This article first appeared in Stephen Kimber's Halifax Metro column.

Photo: Jeff Milner/flickr

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