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'Modest' changes to welfare welcomed, with some exceptions

Advocates welcomed most of the changes the provincial government made today to the income assistance program, but criticized the province for increasing the time people will have to wait for help and for failing to raise rates.

"We're generally pleased, but we would like to see a raise in the rates," said Trish Garner, an organizer with the B.C. Poverty Reduction Coaliton.

Social Development Minister Stephanie Cadieux called the changes, the bulk of which will come into effect in October, "modest" and Premier Christy Clark described them as "balanced changes" that support people who are unemployed while encouraging them to get work.

The province reversed a couple of major policies the BC Liberals put into place in 2002, shortly after forming the government.

People on income assistance will again be able to earn up to $200 a month without having their benefits reduced.

For those on disability assistance, who had earnings exemptions restored to $500 a month a few years ago, the amount goes up to $800 a month for individuals and $1,600 for couples where both are receiving assistance. They can also calculate exemptions over a year, allowing for fluctuations in income.

The government is also ending the controversial time limits policy that restricted people to receiving welfare to 24 months out of any five year period. The province had earlier backed down on the policy, allowing an exemption as long as a person was looking for work, something they already had to be doing to receive assistance, but had not moved to officially withdraw it.

"They've finally admitted it makes no sense and they're getting rid of it," said Seth Klein, the director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternative's B.C. office.

Klein also applauded changes that increase access to dental care for children when families first apply for welfare, allow people to keep more assets before qualifying for assistance and let them keep more of the money they earn or that they receive in income tax refunds.

"There are a number of things here that are helpful," he said, noting several are things for which he and the CCPA have advocated. The changes are minor, however, compared to the need for higher assistance rates, he said.

Klein criticized the government for increasing from three weeks to five the time people who are classified as "expected to work" will be required to wait before receiving help. "It just feels punitive and penny pinching," he said. "It just creates a lot of hardship for people."

Welfare is understood as a last resort and people don't tend to apply until they're in desperate need, he said. "All indications were the three-week wait was a dysfunctional rule, and they've chosen to expand it."

While Klein agreed most of the changes Cadieux and Clark announced are common sense, he said, "This extension of the three week wait to five weeks is the one piece in all this that's quite the opposite."

The government also increased the school start up supplement and made filing an income tax return mandatory so that people don't miss out on tax credits. Clark said overall the changes will cost the government about $5 million a year.

Update, 3:44 p.m.: According to a social development ministry spokesperson, the school start up amount is going from $84 to $100 for five to 11 year olds, and from $116 to $175 for children over 12.

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

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