B.C. welfare recipients need immediate relief

By Adrienne Montani, provincial co-ordinator of First Call: B.C. Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition; Seth Klein, B.C. director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives; Lorraine Copas, executive director of the Social Planning and Research Council of B.C.
The Province

Two recent events highlight the need for emergency relief for B.C. welfare recipients and make clear that people simply cannot meet basic needs on a welfare income.

The first event was in January, when NDP MLA Jagrup Brar spent a month living on $610, the basic welfare income for a single person…

The second was the publication of the report from B.C. members of the Dietitians of Canada comparing the cost of a nutritious basket of food to the support allowance available to welfare recipients. Every one of the five welfare family types studied in the report would have been in the red after paying for food and shelter. Their welfare budgets didn’t allow even one cent for a tube of toothpaste, a bus ticket or a new pair of socks.

The revelations from Brar and the dietitians’ report shocked many British Columbians, but were not news to government, welfare recipients and anti-poverty advocates. Over the years, successive governments have ignored the clear inadequacy of welfare rates, ensuring the deepening poverty of some of the province’s poorest residents.

Our welfare system needs a thorough overhaul, but it also needs an immediate increase in benefits. At a minimum, we propose an immediate increase of $200 a month for a single person, $300 a month for couples without children and $400 a month for families with children. If you question the benefit of increasing the rates, consider the costs and consequences documented in Brar’s experience and the dietitians’ report…

In their report, the dietitians developed budgets for different family and household types that included the cost of food, shelter and basic telephone service. They included in income the amounts paid by B.C. welfare, and other government benefits such as the Canada Child Tax Benefit for families with children and the federal GST credit.

Each of the five family types did not have enough money to cover the total cost of food and shelter. The family with two adults and two children had a deficit of $124 a month.

They would have had to cut back on food or shelter to the tune of $124 a month, and they would have been unable to buy anything else such as non-prescription medications, soap, cleaning supplies, toys, clothing, transportation — all goods and services all of us would consider essential for daily living.

The dietitians’ report concurs with years of studies on the costs we bear when we make it impossible for people to eat properly. They include unhealthy babies, poor growth and development in children, learning deficits, increased illness and decreased life expectancy.

As of January, there were 135,714 cases on the B.C. welfare rolls. Nearly 81 per cent were single people, three per cent were couples without children, 14 per cent were single parents with children, and three per cent were couples with children. …

The cost of providing $200, $300 or $400 more a month would be approximately $383 million a year, a significant amount of money, but not impossible to find.

In a society where income inequality has become a major issue, it would certainly be appropriate to consider taxing wealthier British Columbians to assist the very poorest…

We need more than promises of action down the road. What we need from B.C.’s political parties is a commitment to emergency help right away, followed by an early start on a full review of welfare policies and rates. The ultimate goal should be a system for setting welfare rates that is tied to the real costs of basic living expenses in order to promote health and human dignity.