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BC welfare case numbers hit bottom, begin to climb

The number of British Columbians surviving on welfare is climbing, according to figures released by the housing and social development ministry this week.

There were 21,730 cases in the “expected to work” category in August 2008, up 20 percent from the same month a year ago.

“It's not entirely surprising,” said Seth Klein, the B.C. Director for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and an author of several reports on the province's welfare system. He cautioned that month-to-month comparisons can be "wonky," but said, “I had a sense things had bottomed out in 2006.”

The welfare caseload dropped between 1996 and 2006, most dramatically after the Liberal government tightened the eligibility requirements in 2002. In 1996 about 10 percent of the population was receiving welfare, Klein said, and now about 3.2 percent is.

“Everyone who could be gotten off, pushed off, has been got,” said Klein. “They clearly aren't expecting the kind of dramatic decreases we saw between 2002 and 2005.” The increase since last year is relatively small, he said, and could be due to several factors.

“Part of it could be a little bit of the economy,” said housing and social development minister Rich Coleman. It could also be the changing caseload, he said. “There's no question we do find we get a tougher and tougher client now on social services versus what we did in the past. The client we get now has a number of barriers to employment that need a lot of work and that's why we have the employment programs to help them.”

A decreasing number of welfare cases does not necessarily mean people are doing better, said Klein. B.C. is the only province in Canada where child poverty rates grew between 1997 and 2006, he said.

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. You can reach him here.

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