Last November as Nova Scotia was embarking on pro-forma public consultations on the budget, I argued that the provincial government has both the fiscal capacity and the moral obligation to “build back better” by significantly increasing expenditures on programs and services Statistics Canada classifies under “Social Protection.” Social protection includes sickness and disability, help for families and children, housing support and measures to increase social inclusion. Nova Scotia’s expenditures on this basket of programs actually dropped between 2013 and 2019, leaving the province with the country’s second lowest per-capita expenditure.

The budget tabled last week takes some baby steps in the direction of increasing social protection spending. But in spite of a new leader and a pandemic that’s supposed to bring on many changes, the budget is pretty much Liberal business as usual – a focus on budgetary balance and physical infrastructure with token gestures to our most disadvantaged citizens. The best that can be said is that those gestures have more substance than in previous budgets.

The best-known example is the $100 a month increase in income assistance. Past budgets have been full of talk about “transformation” of the income assistance system and providing “historic” increases in entitlements. But when inflation was taken into account, recipients were worse off at the end of the years-long process than they were at the beginning.

Even with the extra $100 assistance, rates for a single parent with one child will remain the lowest in the country. And single individuals, who make up the majority of recipients, will be worse off than they were in the 1990s. A single person with a disability will now get approximately $1,000 a month to live on. With inflation, that’s about $165 a month less than the entitlement in 1991, according to calculations from the anti-poverty Maytree Foundation. And because assistance rates are way below the poverty line, the increase will not likely improve Nova Scotia’s poverty rate, second highest in Canada according to the latest statistics for 2019.

The “historic” $100 a month increase, combined with the equally “historic” post-transformation increases announced in 2019 and the raise in the provincial child benefit heralded in budget 2020 will, in total, amount to a charge on the provincial treasury of about $70 million. That’s 0.06 per cent of the provincial budget – and coincidentally the same amount of revenue foregone from the corporate tax cut that headlined the 2020 budget. Any barstool economist will know that $70 million in the budgets of the poor will do a great deal more for the economy than the same amount in a corporate tax cut. There’s a ready-made platform plank there for some party.

Disability supports

The other sphere in which the latest budget seems to have moved past the tokenism of the last five was in resources for the Disability Support Program. It has been almost eight years since the Dexter government produced the Roadmap – a ten-year plan to transition from institutional to community-based care for adults with intellectual or physical disabilities or long-term mental illness. The McNeil government adopted the direction laid out in the Roadmap but made very little progress. The number of people with intellectual disabilities housed in large institutions has dropped slightly, while the wait list for community-based services continues to grow, despite a 20 per cent increase in expenditure between 2017 and 2020. Whether the $46.5 million promised in this year’s budget for adults and children with disabilities brings significant improvement in de-institutionalization and wait lists remains to be seen.

Other areas that fall into the social protection category didn’t fare at all well in the budget. Day care, under pressure from the pandemic and staffing challenges – caused partially by the introduction of Nova Scotia’s $54 million a year pre-primary program – isn’t getting any new money. The budget speech noted that the pandemic has highlighted how shortcomings in day care have negatively affected women, but the provincial Liberals will leave the task of building back a better system to the federal Liberals, who have been promising a national day care since at least the 1990s.

On housing, the 2020 budget, responding to some new money from the feds ended years of neglect and doubled spending on housing to $100 million. But in 2021 there’s no significant increase despite the fact that the pandemic further highlighted the issue and the housing bubble made the problem worse. There are thousands on the wait list for public housing, hundreds are homeless and the rental vacancy rate is less than one per cent –  but the only thing on offer so far is a promise of 150 new units over the next three years and a report from an advisory committee.

Long term care

The most glaring shortcoming is long-term care. The budget promises to increase spending on home care and staffing in nursing homes, a minimal response to the calamity at Northwood. However, the Liberals are sticking with their reluctance to significantly increase the number of long-term care beds, in spite of huge wait lists and the infamous grey tsunami – the large population cohort rapidly approaching the age when nursing home care may be required.

As the opposition parties were quick to point out there are 1,500 on the wait list and another 2,900 residents sharing rooms, an unsafe practice exposed by the pandemic. Aside from a seemingly unshakeable faith in home care, the Liberals’ only response so far is a plan to add 236 new long-term care beds over the next five years. By then, the number of Nova Scotians age 85 and over will have increased by more than 4,000 from the current total of around 23,000, with that latter number projected to more than double by 2035, according to Statistics Canada.

Doubling of the 85-plus population to 47,000 by 2035 is an equation political parties should heed going into the upcoming provincial election. People who will be approaching or turning 85 in 2035 – the first decade of the baby boom generation – make up a sizeable part of the province’s population. As of last July, there were 124,000 Nova Scotians between 65 and 74, some of us wondering whether there’ll be a long-term care bed for us should we need it 15 to 20 years from now. That 65 to 74 cohort is politically active – in 2017, almost 74 per cent of the age group voted in the provincial election. That was the highest of any cohort and more than 20 percentage points above the rather abysmal overall turnout of 53.3 per cent.

Both opposition parties are promising more long-term care beds – the Conservatives ten times more. Unless the upcoming federal budget rolls out a credible national plan for long-term care they can piggyback on, the provincial Liberals’ minimalist approach could hurt them at the polls. Gestures toward social justice and an aggressive road building campaign may prove to be no match for a tsunami scorned.