ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — During the first five months of the pandemic, the number of people who contacted a sex worker support group in St. John's jumped by 100, according to the head of the St. John's Status of Women Council.
Laura Winters said the spike in the number of people who found themselves scrambling for extra help was "staggering."
"That's (the program's) rate of growth usually in a year, a year and a half," she said in an interview Tuesday.
Winters is one of many community workers who say Newfoundland and Labrador is experiencing a growing poverty crisis — and that any plan to fix the province's towering economic problems will have to reckon with it.
With a population of slightly more than 520,000, Newfoundland and Labrador is grappling with a $1.84-billion deficit and a $16.4-billion net debt. On Wednesday, the Department of Finance asked residents for their ideas to "modernize government’s delivery of programs and services, increase revenues, and decrease expenses."
Anyone with ideas, the department said, is encouraged to submit them by email or through a government website. The department said the public input, as well as the recommendations made by the province's economic recovery task force, will inform the government's plan to reduce debt and restructure services.
Premier Andrew Furey assembled the task force in September and appointed as its chair Moya Green, a St. John's-born businesswoman known for privatizing Britain's Royal Mail postal service. Last week, labour leader Mary Shortall's decision to quit the team — publicly decrying its alleged lack of transparency and "top-down" approach — brought concerns about austerity and widespread privatization of government services to the forefront.
Now community groups are speaking out. Winters, for example, says the government's team needs to look at the floundering economy through a gender-based lens: studies have shown, she said, that women have been disproportionately hit by the pandemic, through job losses and through an increased workload at home.
Doug Pawson, the executive director of End Homelessness St. John's, said the province should be reviewing its social support systems with the same openness to innovation that Furey said will guide the government's economic recovery team. Pawson said he worries that without representation from the anti-poverty sector on the recovery task force, no one on it will advocate for a new approach.
Provincial social support programs are outdated and built on a dizzying maze of rules that are expensive to enforce, Pawson said. "It's so terribly inefficient," Pawson added. "It doesn't generate any positive outcomes, it traps people in very precarious settings, and for what?"
In an email, Ryan Crocker, a spokesman for the Department of Advanced Education and Skills, said the province employs 21 people on an investigative team tasked with ensuring income support clients are following the rules. Last year, the team turned up 221 applications and cases involving people who weren't eligible for the benefit or who had obtained the benefit fraudulently, Crocker said.
That number works out to less than one per cent of all income support clients. A higher minimum wage and a simpler support system would be cheaper for taxpayers and better for people who need help, Pawson said.
For the past six years Lisa Browne has been the chief executive officer of Stella's Circle, a St. John's non-profit providing work and homes to vulnerable people. “Whatever the (economic) solution, the most vulnerable in society has to be included," she said in an interview Tuesday.
She said it's increasingly difficult to consider the province's economic challenges separately from its social challenges. Browne said she met with Moya Greene and a few members of her staff twice, as a representative of Stella's Circle and of a Newfoundland and Labrador group calling for a "just" recovery from the pandemic, including a guaranteed minimum income pilot program.
Like Pawson, she says ignoring the creeping poverty problems will only translate into more costs down the road for things like health care or corrections.
Browne, however, said she feels the issues she raised in her meetings with Greene were both heard and understood, and she said she has faith that the recovery team will take the issues to heart. “In conversation, it’s very easy to make an economic case for bettering the social outcomes for people," Browne said.
Meghan McCabe, a spokesperson for Furey's office, said in an email that the government is working on a renewed poverty reduction strategy, in consultation with anti-poverty and community groups.
"The government of Newfoundland and Labrador recognizes these are challenging times for individuals and families as poverty is complex, and there is no one size fits all solution," McCabe said Wednesday.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published January 13, 2021.
Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press