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PAT CULLEN: Rising cost of living creating hardship for many

CARBONEAR, N.L. —

On Oct.1 power bills increased by about 6.4 per cent for residential customers in Newfoundland. That means we will pay roughly $6.40 on every $100 of our electricity bills, primarily because the price of oil used to generate electricity at the power plant in Holyrood is rising. For some, this will mean a mere adjustment to the family budget, for others it will mean just one more hardship piled atop many — particularly as the cold days of winter approach.

There is no respite for the senior receiving old age security and the guaranteed income supplement, the working poor who slave for a paltry minimum wage in that netherworld of decreased hours and little or no benefits, and the person receiving income support who is merely given enough money by the provincial government to keep a spark of life within them.

Real estate is not cheap around here. To rent a two-bedroom house, heat and light included, you’re looking at roughly $1,300 a month; without heat and light, $850 to $950.

A two-bedroom apartment, utilities included, could set you back $1,100 to $900 monthly.

If you think you’re better off paying your own, you may get away with $650 a month in Trinity bay, but that will rise by a few hundred dollars in neighboring Conception bay, the hub of the region. And if you go to a smaller community to save on rent, you’re looking at transportation costs to get to work or see a doctor. If you don’t own a vehicle or know someone with whom you can carpool or gives rides on request, you’re in big trouble. There is no public transit in this area and I can’t see that changing soon.

As example, let’s look at seniors who are renters. There are around 53,000 receiving the old age pension and guaranteed income supplement in Newfoundland, excluding Labrador, according to recent figures from the provincial Department of Finance. A single old age pensioner receives $1,529.91 a month while a couple gets $2, 330.32. It is next to impossible for a single senior relying on $1,530 monthly to pay $368 or $490 in electricity rates, HST included — since the 6.4 per cent increase took effect — and still rent at $900 a month.

Even if they can find an apartment for $650 or so, it will be very difficult after health expenses to make ends meet. A couple may find themselves living on one pension and paying the bills with the other. If they live in their own homes, the cost of repairs is not within reach. This is equally true of younger people working for $11.40 an hour, the minimum wage in the province, as well as those receiving income support.

True, the Newfoundland and Labrador Housing Corporation provides the Home Energy Savings Program (HESP) which gives a grant of up to $5,000 so those on low income can insulate their homes and also provides them with up to $12,500 in grants under the Provincial Home Repair Program (PHRP) for much-needed upgrades. But that $12,500 cap for each client is way too low, given the cost of building materials and labour today, and the waiting period, seven years between grants, way too long.

Local contractors in the recent past have also been reluctant to commit to NL Housing jobs because they said it took government too long to pay them. As for subsidized rentals, it may be a couple of years or more before you can find one because there just aren’t enough of them and there is a lengthy wait list. Until then, no matter what your circumstances, you must find a way to cope with market value.

Power rates are increasing for businesses as well and as rates rise so will the price of food and other commodities, making life even more miserable for those whose coping skills are at breaking point. The charities and non-profits that assist will also feel the sting of the electricity rate hikes. And there is an added liability, we still import just about everything we use with the attendant costs chipping away at the limited purchasing power of our most vulnerable.

What we need, according to NDP Leader Alison Coffin, are greater initiatives by government to put more money in people’s pockets such as raises to the old age security and guaranteed income supplement as well as an increase to the minimum wage (the

NDP propose it be hiked to $15 an hour by 2021), although in my view waiting two years for a $3.60-an-hour increase will be of little use given rising inflation. Coffin also advocates for $25-a-day-childcare, gender pay equity and increases in income support rates which she says will possibly be reviewed within the next fiscal year. She might as well add more social housing to her list. Questions sent to the Department of

Advanced Education, Skills and Labour inquiring about increases to income support rates and how clients can cope with a 6.4 per cent hike in their power bill went unanswered — hardly surprising from a department which expects a single person to maintain and heat their home on $7,260 a year.

When asked, as Third Party leader, how she plans to fight in the house of assembly for those who have difficulty paying that additional $6.40 on every $100 monthly electricity bill, she said, “when we see bills that are related to finance we make sure that the needs of all individuals are represented there including those who are underprivileged, including those who have difficulty with affordability, so by bringing up the issues in the house of assembly that’s one way of making sure that they’re recognized and on record. Another way, we can work within our committees when we’re developing legislation to ensure there are protections for people who have difficulty affording just living.”

Jeff Dwyer, the Opposition critic for the Department of Children, Seniors and Social Development said in an email that high taxes are driving people from the province. Within the past year, his email read, “…our population dropped by 2,800.

"The Liberal government,” it continued, “should take immediate actions to ensure that seniors, families and all residents can afford to live here. Their high tax plan is not working.”

At 15 per cent we have one of the highest sales tax in the 10 provinces and our unemployment rate was 11.1 per cent last month, the highest among the 10.

CSSD Minister Lisa Dempster did not respond to questions. I was referred to Natural Resources.

I support redistributing our dollars in order to provide a boost for those at the bottom and I back Alison Coffin’s proposal to rid ourselves of Nalcor Energy with its highly paid multi-layered levels of management. We should also abandon the archaic proposal of establishing a law school at Memorial University. It is simply a waste of money and our young people would be better served by training for the jobs of the future, for example, in Artificial Intelligence.

As an alternative to the law school we could provide more funding for legal aid and establish more effective deterrence programs for those at risk of offending or reoffending. Giving them dignity may just be the answer.

Pat Cullen is a journalist who lives in Carbonear. She can be reached at 596-1505 or cullen.pat1@gmail.com.

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