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Welfare application process 'unduly complex': Ombudsman

The British Columbia government agrees with most of the Ombudsman's recommendations for fixing the welfare system, but says it may be delayed by the worsening economy.

“The ministry's income assistance application process is unduly complex and not designed to meet the needs of the people who are applying for assistance,” found Ombudsman Kim Carter in the 121-page report, Last Resort: Improving Fairness and Accountability in British Columbia's Income Assistance Program.

The report is the result of a systemic investigation into the provincial welfare system sparked by a 2005 complaint from the B.C. Public Interest Advocacy Centre.

The Housing and Social Development ministry which administers the welfare system fails to give applicants a clear, written explanation of the application process, the report said, adding the process is unnecessarily onerous. “The ministry's income assistance application process can discourage people who are in need from obtaining the assistance available to them.”

Some policies are particularly unreasonable, she said, such as requiring single parents with kids under three years old—who won't be required to look for a job if approved for welfare—to spend three weeks looking for work before they can get help.

Similarly, people who have already spent three weeks looking for work before contacting the ministry should be excused from doing another three week job search, she said.

Nor does the ministry do enough to understand the effects of its policies, she said. “The ministry does not accurately track the number of income assistance applications it receives, approves and denies,” she said. “The ministry lacks evidence to support its conclusion that the reduction in the income assistance caseload is a result of people leaving assistance for employment.”

Carter's report makes 25 recommendations for how to improve the system. A letter from Housing and Social Development deputy minister Cairine MacDonald included with the report says the ministry accepts all but one of the recommendations. The ministry will not compensate people who were denied benefits they were entitled to but did not get due to the government's delay implementing a policy change.

MacDonald cautioned that even the changes the ministry is willing to make may take awhile. “The ministry is experiencing extraordinary demands for service at this time in the face of the current economic situation, and that while we will make every effort to expedite work to implement the recommendations of the report, immediate client needs will be our most pressing priority.”

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee’s Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. Reach him here.

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