Single employable New Brunswickers on social assistance can only keep $ 150 per month of their earnings, after which the Department of Social Development claws back 70% of the wages they earn from part-time employment. Members of the Common Front for Social Justice view this policy as unjust and are asking for a policy change whereby the wage exemption is raised to $500 per month. This is a minor change, yet it would improve the lives of over 1,200 persons in New Brunswick who were, in 2020, clawed back after earning $150 per month. Hereafter, there are five cases of persons that belong to my circle of contacts. Names are changed to protect their identity and photos are from Dreamline.com.

Peter is a single man in his fifties. He feels that the current wage exemption policy system is a strong disincentive to work – ironically, exactly what they claim the government claims it does. He says that after the first $150 he earns, every dollar is clawed back at a rate of 70%. Peter earns $450 per month and keeps the first $150. On the remaining $300, the claw back is $210. He has heard many people say they try not to earn more than $150 because the claw back rate is so high. Peter feels that the current claw back traps him in the system. A fair social assistance system is one which offers people a chance to escape it. Peter says “As much as I dislike the work of delivering flyers in a grocery cart, I would much rather be earning my monthly income that way than by taking the same amount through welfare, and I believe that most of us feel the same. Contrary to Premier Higgs’ obvious belief, extremely few people would choose dependence if there were another option within reach.”

Camilla is single woman in her late fifties working as a dishwasher in a senior’s residence for 14 years. Because she was certified as disabled, she sais she was clawed back after she earned $270. Camilla had to report her earnings to the Department every two week, an obligation which she found anoying. She always watched not to work longer than the allowed basic excemption amount of dollars, for fear that her social welfare check would be cut off. If aked by her employer to work additional hours, she would always refused. The personnel manager of the residence feels that the current wage exemption polity limits her ability to recruit the staff she would need. Instead of hiring four or five employees that are reluctant to only work for  more than 12 hours per month to earn $150, this employer would much prefer hiring two staff members and offer them to work for the number of  hours per month required to do the job.

Joseph is a man in his early forties suffering from muscular dystrophy, a condition which condemns him to a wheelchair. In spite of his health condition, he is energetic and eager to have a part-time job. After distributing numerous resumes, he landed a job as an usher in a public arena for which he is paid minimum wage. The following is what Joseph says: “I must inform the Department of Social Development of how much money I earn during the month, and I am afraid to earn more than the allowed wage exemption. I inform my employer that I can only earn a certain amount per month. If I do not work during a certain pay period, I must ask my employer to inform the Department of Social Development that I have not worked. I was threatened by that Department to have my monthly check cut completely if I did not abide by this. Joseph is eager to work but his physical condition limits what he can do. He is happy to work a certain number of hours as it gives him extra money. Working also makes a difference for him as he feels valued through his job. Joseph is very sociable and enjoys human contacts.

Ronald is in his late fifties and depends on his social assistance check of $576 per month to cover all his basic necessities, including housing, food, and all other items. Until his mid-forties, he owned a lumber business, paid taxes and was doing well. Due to health reasons, he had to request social assistance in order to survive. Money is scarce so he relies on the food banks and soup kitchens for his meals. Recently, he could not afford to replace his worn-out shoes, so he turned to a non-profit organization for help. Given that Ronald has expertise in forestry, he was recently requested to work as advisor to a lumber company. He earns around $360 in consultant fees per month, and he does, like many other social welfare recipients working part time, avoids declaring his earnings. It troubles him to be “working under the table” but he does this to avoid food insecurity. If Ronald could keep $500 in income per month, he would declare his earnings and feel he is a more honest person.

Joe is a single man in his fifties. He relies on his social assistance to live as he has not been able to sustainn heavy work because of his physical condition. Joe’s relational skill are excellent and on that basis, he was hired to manage a project for a non profit organization. Because of the quality of his work, Joe was offered $20 per hour and could work for as many hours per moth as required. Being a very honest individual, he chose to only claim $150 per month and left the rest of what he earned in the bank account of the organization that hired him. Joe could have easily used an extra $500 or more per month for he is short on money. He goes to soup kitchens, walks to access his basic necessities, reaches out to people in need, etc. Joe’s sense of integrity has led him only claim for 7.5 hours of work at $20 per hour (or $150) although he put in many more. He firmly believes that the basic work exemption should be raised to $500.

When a person reflects on the situation of over 1,200 New Brunswickers being subjected to the $150 per month wage exemption policy, what comes to one’s mind is that our province would be so much better off if social welfare recipients were given a chance to keep their first $500 per month earned. That would create a fairer society, offer true incentives to seek employment and allow people to live in dignity.

Auréa Cormier, secretary

Moncton Chapter of the Common Front for Social Justice