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May 25, 1998
(Human Resources and Employment)

The following statement was issued today by Julie Bettney, Minister of Human Resources and Employment. It was also read in the House of Assembly:

Province tackles child poverty
New funds for National Child Benefit

The National Child Benefit Program is a bold social initiative designed to ensure that all of our children have the best possible start in life. It represents the collective priority of our provincial and federal governments to reduce child poverty and is an important first step in improving the life chances of hundreds of thousands of Canadian children.

The federal government has committed $1.7 billion over the next three years to increase support benefits for low income families with children. This has enabled provinces such as ours to make strategic, long term investments in services and benefits for children in low income families. The prevention and early intervention programs, as well as the work incentives we are putting in place this year, are essential to addressing child poverty and the social problems associated with it.

From the very beginning, all governments have agreed that the best way to improve the living standards of children across the country is to have a national children's benefit sufficient to remove them from the welfare system. This would create a more secure and uniform level of basic income support for children in low income families that does not depend on receiving social assistance. It would also provide provinces the financial means to establish or improve programs targeted at improving work incentives, benefits and services for children and their families.

By design therefore, the National Child Benefit frees up provincial income support money for reinvestment in programs and services. Without this infusion of federal funding we would not, today, be planning a $4.6 million enhancement to licensed child care services in this province. We would not be preparing to spend $1.5 million to extend the network of family resource centres which have provided such valuable support and services to needy families and their children through 45 sites across the province. We would not be developing a $2.8 million network of critical supports to youth who are at risk of not making a successful transition from school to adulthood and independence. We would not have the opportunity to start exciting, new employment initiatives such as the wage supplement for single parents and extension to the drug card benefits valued at $1.6 million. With all of the competing social needs we have in this province today and our constrained financial resources, we simply could not have taken on such a major new initiative.

So I felt very proud of our government, when we were able to finally make the start that social advocates who work on the front lines of poverty in the province, have so long awaited. We assured members of this House, the advocacy groups and the people of the province at that time, that the present financial commitments were just a start and that government would make every effort to find more resources to devote to the NCB as our financial resources permitted.

This fiscal year our government acted immediately by increasing social assistance rates by 7 per cent over the next three years, providing a $150 monthly cost of living allowance to families on the coast of Labrador, increasing the earnings exemption for families on social assistance and also raising the rates of child care subsidies and exemptions. In addition to this, we gave a $1 million grant to the Provincial Children's Food Foundation to help them increase their programs across the province. In total, an incremental investment of more than $7 million to low income families in Newfoundland and Labrador.

The public has responded very positively to the National Child Benefit Program and to these additional measures. I am particularly impressed and indeed touched by the support we have received from advocacy groups such as the members of the Community Alliance for Better Solutions - especially knowing their concerns for the financial circumstances of families receiving social assistance. They recognize, probably better than most, what a little extra income means to these families. Yet they also understand that the cycle of poverty will only be broken when we eliminate its root causes and this we can only begin to do through the kinds of early intervention and prevention programs planned for the National Child Benefit Program. I want to thank them for their continued understanding and support.

But for all that, there was not one of us who did not struggle with the need to recover the benefit from social assistance families. To a person, we all knew the individual cases of parents and often single parents on social assistance who struggle every single day just to provide the very basic necessities for their children. They are people who either because of lack of work, lack of necessary skills and abilities or in some cases the sheer combination of life circumstances, are unable to support themselves at this point. But they so desperately want something better for their children.

As Members of this House, I know we all share a deep concern about the current situation which sees one in every four children in our province living in families which receive social assistance. Compounding this problem is the fact that we have one of the lowest social assistance rates in the country. While poverty level comparisons between provinces are difficult to measure accurately, it is still troubling to see statistics such as those published a few weeks ago by the National Council on Welfare. They show that in 1996, 72 per cent of single parent families in this province lived below the poverty line - the highest rate of all the provinces. In the face of such concern, we felt compelled to respond.

So the announcement I am about to make has great significance for all of us. It is a decision that we have reached not after any great groundswell of public pressure but rather after much soul searching collectively as a caucus and a cabinet. It is a decision that reaches to the very core of our Liberal values. It says that even though our financial resources remain constrained and will continue to be for the next few years, we are confident enough about the future that we are prepared to make a dramatic investment today in some of the poorest children in this province.

I am pleased to hereby announce that government has decided to permit families who receive social assistance to keep the full National Child Benefit supplement this year.

This amounts to the equivalent of a 13 to 14 per cent increase in the basic rate that most social assistance families currently receive. In fact, it represents the single largest increase in income that social assistance families have received in close to 25 years. This increase will provide the over 13,000 families who receive social assistance, greater financial capacity to respond to their children's basic needs. In real dollar terms, families with two children will see an increase of $84 per month in their income on July 20. When combined with their existing child benefit, this amounts to a separate cheque each month of $250 to help them care for their children.

This is a very substantial improvement in the financial circumstances of social assistance families and their children. With this decision, our government has taken another major step toward reducing child poverty in this province. Combined with the $10 million annual program investment targeted at improving work incentives, benefits and services for low income families with children, I am confident that we can greatly improve the life chances for all poor children in this province.

But we know there is still much that we have to do. It is essential that the federal government continue to increase its investment in the National Child Benefit until we reach the goal of having an adequate and secure level of basic income support for all children in low income families across the country. Here in our province we must continue to change our income support system so that people who can work, are always better off working. Government's singular goal in this regard remains to knock down the welfare wall that traps people in dependency and actively support them to become as self reliant as possible. This means we have to remove the barriers and disincentives that currently exist in our system that keep people from work. But most of all, we must continue to increase employment so that parents everywhere in this province can find and keep work. This will in turn enable them to build a better future for themselves and their children.

The federal government will this year provide more than $23 million in National Child Benefit payments to over 41,000 children of low income and social assistance families in Newfoundland and Labrador. In addition, the province will provide a $10 million annual investment fund for early intervention and prevention programs and services, as well as $7 million to fund other initiatives aimed at low income families and their children.

With the magnitude of these investments I feel confident in saying that we have arrived at a major turning point in securing better lives and a brighter future for all of the children in Newfoundland and Labrador.

1998 05 25 2:40 p.m.

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