Nova Scotia Community Services Minister Joanne Bernard says there is an “extraordinarily high” number of people in the province staying on income assistance and employment support longer than they should be.

She said that though she cannot give the exact number, it is something she is committed to changing.

More than 44,000 Nova Scotians are on income assistance, staying on the program for an average of about four years, according to the Department of Community Services.

A spokesperson for the department said many recipients come back to assistance after going off, but the department can’t say how long some of the stays actually are.

On Monday, Bernard said the issue is not new.

“My philosophy on the whole income assistance, and social housing program has always been you help folks, you lift them up to where they need to be, you support them in reaching their full outcome and then they move on,” Bernard said.

“And for generations in this province that hasn't been happening,” she said.

Bernard said she speaks from a place of personal experience.

“I was on income assistance for nine years, but during that time I was able to meet the goals I had set for myself and move off,” she said.

Bernard said that, of the people on income assistance, roughly a third are job-ready, another third needs more professional development or literacy upgrades, and another third with mental health issues, addictions or disabilities will never get out of the system.

Social worker Paul O’Hara says he’d like to see the numbers backing these claims up.

He has worked with people on income assistance for nearly 35 years, and says Bernard’s message likely only applies to a small portion of people in the programs.

Instead, he says the message should be people are hurting, and the system isn’t meeting their needs.

“I'm sure Joanne Bernard is probably the strongest advocate behind the scenes of anybody that's been in that position for a long, long time, so that's why I find it discouraging for a message to come out from the minister implying that there are people there that don't need to be,” O’Hara said.

Lesley Dunn, executive director of the Dartmouth Learning Network, said she’s not surprised by the minister’s comments.

“Dependence on the income assistance structure is not hereditary, but it’s certainly systemic,” she said.

While 80 per cent of the learners at her centre are on assistance, only 10 per cent reach out for help, Dunn said.

“Not everybody is going to come into a learning centre such as ours to seek help, so how else are we going to get them?” Dunn said.

“We have to move our programs out into the community to where they are,” she said.

As Bernard seeks to solve the problem she laid out Monday, her department is looking at how its services are delivered, and at developing new incentives and supports to get people out of the system.

With files from CTV Atlantic’s Jacqueline Foster