Carl Johnson was nearly a human resources ministry "success story" for making the jump from welfare to work. His opportunity was a construction job that he got through an employment agency. It wasn't really a job for which he felt suited, but he decided he had to take it rather than risk having his benefits cut if his welfare worker learned he'd refused the placement.
After two weeks on the job Johnson's employer asked him not to come back, so he returned to the welfare office to ask for more help. But under the Liberal-introduced welfare eligibility rules he had to prove he'd been independent from his parents for two years -- something that was difficult for him to do, even though he was in his mid-30s. He had been out of his parents' home for years, but due to a "spotty" work history and time in and out of school he didn't have the tax records to show he'd earned at least $7,000 a year in two consecutive years.
He said he was nearly denied a cheque, and was only reinstated after a stressful waiting period. "You have to be really careful what you apply for," he said. "That was the lesson. Don't take the wrong job. The consequences to me were severe."
Report pried from government hands
Since taking office in June 2001, the B.C. Liberal government has repeatedly claimed that most people -- about two out of three -- are leaving welfare for work. There are now about 87,000 fewer people surviving on welfare than the 252,000 who were receiving the benefit three years ago.
However, the human resources ministry's exit surveys examining what people are doing six months after leaving welfare suggest that experiences like Johnson's are all too common, with at least some denied benefits.
The strongest evidence isn't in the reports the government released for public consumption, but in comments made to the interviewers, which the ministry released following a freedom of information request, nine months of stonewalling and the mediation of the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner. Even then, the 46-page document they released only included comments from two of the four surveys they had done before the request was made. Names and any other details that might identify an individual were blanked out.
"I left income assistance for a permanent job," one person said. "The job lasted [blacked out] weeks. When I went back to Human Resources, I was told I couldn't reapply for income assistance for the next five years. My MLA has not been any help. The government should tear up the contracts of those high paid workers they have contracts with and give people like me a job."
Another told the interviewer: "I am a diabetic. Since [blacked out] I've been unable to afford medication. I tried to get back on Income Assistance late last year and was told I couldn't because I have not earned $7,000 in two consecutive years. I was refused disability. Someone is going to die if something isn't done to give them help."
'I am living on nothing'
And yet another said: "Just because you are poor and haven't made a lot of money you are penalized for being poor. That is in reference to the fact that they have instituted a new rule that says you must work to earn $7,000 for two years in a row before you can get assistance. I think that is a kick in the butt because sometimes people need help if they are below the social safety net. That can cause people to become homeless and they could die in the material world. At least help people in the winter like I need it now." For that person the lack of a cheque meant real hardship. "I am living on nothing right now unless I can sell something," the person said.
Seth Klein, the director of the B.C. office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, said people's stories of being denied welfare indicate what he suspected -- that the number of people on welfare is falling in part because new claimants are being rejected. "It's really a front door story," he said. "When you've got the minister saying people are leaving for work, that's not actually true. There are fewer people coming on."
Or as one former welfare recipient put it during an exit survey interview, "I think that the government public relations spin that people leaving are being retrained and going back to work is a lie."
Klein said he filed a freedom of information request for statistics from the ministry on the number of people seeking welfare they've turned away and on what grounds, but the ministry has not yet provided the information.
It is normal for people to cycle on and off welfare. According to a human resources ministry spokesperson, two out of every three welfare recipients leave within six months. This suggests that in the 36 months the Liberals have been in office, there would be upwards of 750,000 instances of people leaving welfare, at least temporarily. Normally, they would have been replaced by new cases and by people returning -- of the ones who leave, two out of three are normally back on welfare within two years.
But under the Liberals, something else is happening. Despite a lagging economy and flat employment levels during most of their tenure, the Liberals have reduced the caseload by nearly a third. "Something doesn't compute," said Klein.
He believes the government's published exit survey reports provide further evidence that people in need of short-term assistance are being turned away. The spring 2002 report showed 5,578 left income assistance six months prior, but by spring 2003 the number was down to 4,612. Similarly, the summer 2002 edition showed 3,110 people left, while in the summer 2003 report the number dropped to 2,281.
Latest exit surveys withheld
The government hasn't released an exit survey since November, so two are late according to the ministry's pledge to release them quarterly. Klein said he suspects that if the reports are ever released they will show a similar trend.
Human Resources Minister Stan Hagen was unavailable to answer questions about any aspect of the government's reforms. The government has remained tight-lipped about the number of people being denied benefits. Hagen won't discuss why exit surveys consistently show that nearly half the people who left welfare six months earlier have phone numbers that are out of service.
In the absence of hard information, one has to engage in some supposition.
The Liberals' tightening of the eligibility requirements may well be responsible for a significant part of the drop in the number of the people receiving welfare, Klein said. Those policies include requiring single parents to work when their youngest child turns three instead of the previous age of seven, making post-secondary students no longer eligible and asking people over 19 years old to prove they've been independent from their parents for two years before they can get assistance.
The policies deserve closer scrutiny, said Klein, but most of the public is unaware of the changes the Liberals made. "There has been no debate."
Take the independence requirement. In an interview in 2002 then-human resources minister Murray Coell argued that by requiring people to prove they'd been independent of their parents for two years the government could "break the cycle" of generations of a family depending on welfare. He didn't want children who'd grown up in a home where welfare was the main source of income to think they could choose to move out on their own and depend on the dole to pay the bills.
B.C. rule unique in Canada
"No other province has a rule like this," said Klein. "I think it's objectionable to exclude people from what should have been a right simply because of their age." It forces young people to look for an income elsewhere, he added, and for some it will mean having to accept illegal or even harmful jobs.
There are exemptions for some situations, he said, such as when a person is leaving a home where they are abused. But he worries the policy is unevenly applied due to varying interpretations of "abuse" and standards of proof. "My hunch is it varies from office to office and worker to worker whether they are granting people that exemption or being hard-asses about it."
Similarly, should welfare be available to post-secondary students? It's easy to imagine a student blowing their budget at the campus pub, then turning to the government for help with their predicament. On the other hand, it's equally easy to imagine a student -- squeezed by rising tuition, expensive textbooks, the cost of living and the withdrawal of provincial grants -- unable to stretch their food budget through to the end of the school term.
"I think that's a really telling policy," said Klein. Underlying so many of the changes is the idea that people should take the quickest route to the first job they can find, he said, no matter what it is and what doors it may close for the future.
And what about those single parents whose youngest child turns three? Since full-time education isn't available until kids turn six, said Klein, "You're basically saying they have to come up with some other kind of childcare arrangement. At the same time there's less of it and reduced subsidies for it."
According to the most recent exit survey, single-parent families with employment income earned just 1.6 times the assistance they would have received, so anything gained by getting a job is likely taken away by increased childcare expenses.
The NDP lowered the age to seven, he said, but in the past single parents weren't expected to work until their youngest child turned 12 or 13, an age where they could legally look after themselves. For the policies to work, he said, "There's got to be a logic to it."
Liberals avoid discussing evidence
The only change to the eligibility requirements that's had a thorough public airing was the policy limiting "employable" people to 24 months of welfare in a five-year period. On that issue, the Liberals faced intense pressure from activists, the media and the NDP, who called repeatedly for the government to announce how many people were likely to be cut off in April 2004. In the end, the Liberals left the policy on the books, but made it irrelevant by amending it to say anyone actively looking for work -- already a welfare condition for those considered "employable" -- would be exempt.
But the Liberals are reluctant to defend their welfare reforms policy by policy. Instead, ministers and their officials simply point to the shrinking caseload as evidence of the system's "success."
"Ultimately you measure success by poverty reduction," said Klein.
So how are we doing? According to Statistics Canada, 12.9 percent of British Columbians were considered low-income in 2002, the most recent year for which data is available. When the Liberals took office in 2001 the number was 11.5 percent, after dropping for two years in a row from a high of 13.5 percent in 1999.
For more recent information, we turn to the Canadian Association of Foodbanks' report Hunger Count 2003. Released last October, it said 72,573 people used a food bank in B.C. in March 2003. That's an increase of 2.4 percent since 2002, and of 22.9 percent since 1997.
Half of homeless report welfare difficulty
Even more recently, the City of Vancouver's report on the homeless count, released in February 2004, said between 500 and 1,200 people sleep outdoors on any given night, "roughly double the number we reported in 2001." Another 600 or 700 sleep in shelters, it said, with 150 more beds made available since 2001. "At the same time, the number of turnaways at some shelters has more than doubled since 2001."
The report noted that many of the homeless people they surveyed reported being employed but said they were unable to save enough money for a damage deposit plus a month's rent to get an apartment. Also, it said, "About half of the shelterless people we wake at night tell us that they do not have any income because they have difficulty accessing the new welfare system. Before assistance is received, the system now involves several appointments, delays, and tasks they find overly challenging. This seems to have been a particular problem for people with head injury, mental illness, severe depression, young people who are trying to find work, prisoners following their release from incarceration, those raised in foster care in B.C., and immigrants and refugees."
Premier Gordon Campbell and his human resources ministers have trumpeted their ability to cut 87,000 cases -- one out of three -- from the welfare system as a great success of the B.C. Liberal government. That "success" obscures a much deeper failure.
"I think the driving imperative here is budget reduction," said the CCPA's Klein. The government has made a poor effort to find out what happens to people who leave welfare, he added, and no effort to discover how the cuts affect the people they've shut out of the system. That shows a dangerous disregard, he said, for how their cuts play out in the lives of the people who depend on the system for help.
Andrew MacLeod has covered welfare reform regularly as a staff writer for Victoria's Monday Magazine. Tyee staff member Kathleen Haley contributed files on homelessness and food bank usage.