Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Grandmother's love not enough

Pensioner's struggle to raise orphaned grandchild

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Katrina never imagined her retirement would look like it does today. She certainly didn't think she'd be taking care of an orphaned grandchild.

Of course, Katrina would never have envisioned in her darkest dreams that she'd outlive her daughter. Nor could she have anticipated using up all of her savings to support her grandchild and her daughter who slowly died of cancer in hospital.

But maybe most of all, Katrina never would have thought that today she'd be trying to make ends meet on Employment and Income Assistance -- part of the province's welfare system.

Yet here she is, struggling to feed, clothe and shelter not just herself but also her teenage grandchild.

After receiving her CPP, social assistance, the CPP orphan benefit and the Child Tax Benefit, Katrina and her grandchild have $1,369 a month to cover expenses.

"I am likely one of many grandparents in the province raising a grandchild, and there is no category for us regarding needed assistance," said Katrina, in her mid-60s. "We love and are very much devoted to our grandchildren, but we need help."

Katrina said she finds it ironic she would receive more than $800 a month if she were taking care of a foster child -- more than the $690 she receives from EIA.

If she wanted to receive a foster child payment, Child and Family Services informed her she would have to give up custody of her grandchild first, something she said she couldn't imagine doing.

Katrina said she's tried many times to find enough work to get off social support, but a chronic injury prevents her from working for long stretches. She's applied for CPP Disability, which would substantially increase her income, but she's been turned down more than once even though she said she qualifies for the provincial disability benefit.

"I've contacted my MLAs, MPs, the minister and the premier," she said, adding they have all replied sympathetically but have been of little help.

"I just find it a heartless, heartless world."

To make matters worse, she is about $14,000 in debt, the result of not earning enough to cover all of their expenses over the last several years. She pays $400 a month as a minimum payment, which reduces her cash flow for needed expenses.

She needs help, but she's uncertain what good any advice might do. She said she's already applied for every possible program and is still sinking deeper into debt, but she hopes coming forward with her plight will draw attention to what she perceives as a hole in the social safety net.

"I wish I wasn't on it (social assistance), but if it takes a village to raise a child, where's the village and how do I get there?"

Debt counsellor Yvonne Neu said Katrina's situation is unfortunately not unique.

"We are seeing more and more older adults caring for their grandchildren," said Neu, who works for the non-profit Community Financial Counselling Services.

Like Katrina, many other seniors are incurring consumer debt to cover their cost of living.

In her case, her income is less than $1,400 a month and her expenses, including debt payments, exceed $1,800. The shortfall might not be apparent to her month over month because her expenses are expressed here as a monthly average that includes costs like dental care and school supplies, which pop up sporadically throughout the year. Often low-income individuals use high-interest credit cards to cover these expenses and, in turn, they incur debt that likely can't be repaid. Neu said this creates a "robbing Peter to pay Paul situation" where more and more cash flow goes toward servicing debt, which results in using the credit cards even more frequently.

This is especially troubling in Katrina's case because it appears she has few ways to increase her income. She has taken advantage of most available financial aid.

And while it may appear from Katrina's perspective a foster parent would receive more financial support than a legal guardian, that may not be the case.

"The allotment from foster care would be tax-free; however, her funds through EIA-D would be based on a single person instead of one with a child, and therefore at the end of the day, the figures may be pretty well the same."

But the EIA program is complex and difficult to understand, even for debt counsellors relatively familiar with working with low-income Manitobans. It may be that Katrina is missing potential benefits, and she should contact an EIA advocate that can help her navigate the system.

"Two agencies that may have an EIA advocate on staff are North End Women's Resource Centre or Community Unemployment Help Centre," Neu said. "There is also a network of individuals and agencies across the city working together to deal with these EIA issues."

Making Poverty History and the Social Planning Council are lobbying government to make policy changes to improve the system, and they may be able to help her find other potential sources of help, Neu said.

"But with regard to Katrina's financial situation, there is probably not anything I can tell her that she has not already checked out, or is actually doing at the present time."

Still, Katrina might consider a few measures to increases income and decrease costs.

"She may find a small flexibility in her grocery budget by accessing food banks."

As well, Katrina should look into whether her grandchild qualifies for any education bursaries, subsidies or grants.

While Katrina may be unable to work full-time or find casual employment that doesn't affect her health, she might take on odd jobs, such as babysitting.

"She would be able to earn an additional $200 per month without affecting her current EIA-D amount," Neu said, adding she'd only be able to keep 30 per cent of any earnings more than $200.

Katrina could also volunteer under the program, receiving $100 a month, but she can't do that and work at the same time.

Once she turns 65, she will collect OAS and qualify for the Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS). These benefits will increase her monthly income to almost $1,700.

"These increases would hopefully help her balance the books, but they will not help her to deal with her creditors," Neu said. "My suggestion would be to contact them in writing and explain her situation."

Creditors cannot garnishee government payments, so because it's likely impossible for her to ever pay off her debts in full, Katrina should ask her creditors to forgive the debt based on her unique circumstances and limited income.

"In the meantime, she may want to contact our office and speak to a counsellor about her individual financial challenges."

giganticsmile@gmail.com

Katrina's finances

ñü INCOME

Employment and Income Assistance: $690

CPP orphan benefit: $219

CPP: $180

Child tax benefit: $280

Total: $1,369

ñü EXPENSES

Monthly: $1,831 (includes debt payments)

ñü DEBT

Credit cards: $14,000 owing at 19.99 per cent, paying $400 a month

ñü ASSETS

None

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 28, 2012 $sourceSection0

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