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Month on welfare challenge wins more media attention than years as critic

Surrey-Fleetwood MLA Jagrup Brar's effort to live for a month on a welfare-level income of $610 has generated many more headlines than his years as the official opposition's critic on the file ever did.

A search of Canadian newspapers using the ProQuest database shows there have been some 98 stories published mentioning Brar and welfare or income assistance since he announced in December, 2011, that he'd accepted the challenge from the advocacy group Raise the Rates.

The same database lists a similar number of stories mentioning Brar in the entire four-year period between the May, 2005, and May, 2009, provincial elections. Of those, only 37 also mentioned welfare or income assistance, though Brar was the NDP's critic for the responsible ministry starting in July, 2006.

"One of the tragedies is by and large the experience of people living in poverty is an untold story," said Bill Hopwood, the organizer of the MLA welfare challenge for Raise the Rates.

Brar's willingness to take the challenge, which has had him living in a shared house in Surrey and a single room occupancy hotel in Vancouver, has put a face to the issue, he said. "It's a personal story and it's slightly unusual," he said. "People's experience captures other people's imagination in a way facts, figures and statistics sometimes do not."

There is greater interest now than there was a few years ago in poverty and inequality, said Hopwood. "I think there's that mood in society that we need to change," he said. "Overwhelmingly the responses have been in favour of what he's doing and saying welfare's too low."

Brar has helped make people aware of how low the rates are and has given people who think poverty and low welfare rates are a problem the confidence to speak out, he said. "I think it's shifted public opinion."

It also drew a column from Social Development Minister Stephanie Cadieux who argued that welfare for single people who are employable is intended to be a temporary aid and the rate is set accordingly.

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee’s Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. Find him on Twitter or reach him here.

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