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My life behind the welfare wall

One woman’s struggle to move forward in the system that holds her back

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Black brick wall for background

Here’s something you may not know about poverty: when you get off welfare and get a job, you can lose more than you gain financially. Sometimes, you end up poorer.

You lose money in taxes, earning expenses, and lost benefits, such as pharmacare, childcare subsidies, and earning clawbacks (money the government takes from welfare benefits for every dollar you earn). This discourages people from taking low-wage jobs, without the chance to earn better wages.

Kyla Derry’s story illustrates this catch-22. Kyla is one of 40,000 Nova Scotians on the Employment Support and Income Assistance program, which includes income assistance, employment support services and pharmacare. Only 11 per cent of participants have employment income, and 80 per cent of new applicants have been in the system before.

Kyla wants to go to college and start her own business, but doing so means surrendering her current source of income and taking on tuition and day-care costs. The Province of Nova Scotia prefers that its clients participate in job-training programs rather than degree programs because it’s cheaper. But these short-term job-training stints don’t always result in long-term employment or any change in income status.

The part-time job Kyla could hold while attending classes would not provide nearly enough money to cover her expenses. She is stuck behind the welfare wall. This is her story, as told to Halifax Magazine writer Chris Benjamin.

My name is Kyla Derry. I’m 30 years old, and have been on and off income assistance for 12 years.

I was raised by my grandmother. My mother has been on assistance her whole life and my father has been in and out of jail. Right now he’s incarcerated for murder.

While in high school, when I was 18, I got pregnant. My grandmother made sure I stayed focused on school and got good grades. She did everything to take care of me.

I had my daughter in July 2003. My grandmother died soon after.

With Grandma’s passing, my life took a turn for the worse but I managed to finish Grade 12. A year and a half later I got into a relationship with a guy who abused me.

I had him charged and he was given restraining orders. That didn’t stop him from hunting me down, driving past me in taxis and scooping me up. Every time I left him he chased me down or threatened my family.

As a result of the abuse, my second daughter was born with severe brain damage and taken into [protective] custody when she was five weeks old. I was working as a cleaner at the Westin hotel, sometimes at night and on weekends, and she was going to need 24-hour care.

My lawyer told me that once my situation improved I could get her back. She was eventually adopted and her adoptive family changed her name. There is still something missing in my life.

Early one morning, I got a call from my uncle. He told me that my abusive ex had been stabbed to death on Strawberry Hill. Everyone offered their condolences.

Five months later, my oldest daughter’s father was murdered. She was almost five, and had a relationship with him.
I gave birth to a son in 2013. The father went to Toronto and I haven’t heard from him since.

Financially, it’s been hard. Rent at my first place was $183 a month. Welfare was giving me $350 and I also had to pay for laundry, heat, lights, diapers, milk, etc. I always wondered where my next meal would come from.

I can spend $400 on groceries, but by the time the end of the month comes, I still need to go back to the grocery store and spend another $200 to $300. My toddler eats like a man and my daughter is an athlete. It’s not cheap to feed your children from Canada’s Food Guide.

My daughter wants to do the same things other kids do, like sports and camping. Kid-Sport Nova Scotia, a non-profit organization, supports the cost of one sport per season. But my daughter plays basketball and soccer and the two seasons overlap, meaning I only get assistance with one.

My daughter once reached out to her uncle, her father’s brother who works on rigs out west, for help with the cost of a camping trip. He put $100 in my bank account. My [case] worker at the Department of Community Services (DCS) saw the deposit, and put a hold on my income assistance cheque without giving me any written notice.

I called and asked him what happened to my cheque. He said that to receive a gift from my daughter’s uncle I needed to provide a letter from him. Without a letter, the province deducts the money from my income assistance. In this case, it held my cheque for a week and my worker handled it unprofessionally.

Income assistance is designed to keep people from getting ahead. Every dollar I earn can be clawed back by the provincial government. If I fall behind on my power bill, for example, the government will “help” with payments and then take money from my cheque. They’re still taking from my children and I still can’t get ahead.

Through the YWCA, I did an eight-week, part-time internship at a newspaper. It’s good because I like to write and I’m interested in the business. I’m earning minimum wage but after the first $150, 70 per cent of my income is taken back by the provincial government. So I’m earning about $3 an hour.

I want to get a post-secondary education in business administration. Everyday I tell my daughter she needs an education to get anywhere; she’s a good student, like I was. But if all I have is my Grade 12, it’s just talk.

On the other hand, to go to school I’d have to get a student loan to cover not only tuition, but living expenses for my family, including subsidized childcare. I’d be facing 20 years of debt or more, and income assistance won’t help.

So how do I get ahead? My provincial government worker told me to get a job, work a certain number of hours, quit and go on federal employment insurance.

It seems ridiculous.

I’m determined to find a way because I want to start my own business. It can be writing or cleaning, as long as I know my kids are taken care of.

My problem is not with the amount of financial support the government provides. But if people, including single parents, are going to get out of poverty, they need help getting their education.

If DCS really wants to fight poverty, it should support people with what they actually need. It should work with them instead of working so hard to find reasons not to help.

DCS wants to put us into employability programs but they don’t always end up in work placements—not many employers are willing to take us on. When they do, the place-ments are short and the earnings are clawed back.

DCS won’t pay for people’s education so that they can get decent paying jobs. They think if you have a minimum wage job you’re not poor anymore, but it’s not that simple.

They say, “I’m working for a paycheque, why can’t you?” Not everyone can just go out and get a well-paying job. Not everybody has degrees and certifications.

I don’t want to clean toilets and flip burgers all of my life because when you do those jobs you still live in poverty; you might earn even less. But that’s all I can get with a Grade 12 education.

CORRECTION: Due to a fact-checking error, an earlier version of this story misstated the number Nova Scotians on the Employment Support and Income Assistance program. The number above is correct. Halifax Magazine regrets the error. 

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