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A Tour of Duty in BC's Poverty 'War Zone'

MLA Jagrup Brar's welfare month reveals program's serious failings, but gov't continues to stall.

By Katie Hyslop 31 Jan 2012 | TheTyee.ca

Katie Hyslop reports on education and politics for The Tyee. Read her previous stories here.

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MLA Brar lost eight pounds and hours of sleep enduring the Raise the Rates challenge.

Jagrup Brar is tired. It's day 29 of his month-long challenge to live on $610 in the province's Lower Mainland, and the Surrey-Fleetwood MLA ran out of money three days ago.

He's just finished a two-and-a-half hour shift at the Carnegie Community Centre cafeteria on a Sunday morning, cutting fruits and vegetables in exchange for a $2 voucher for breakfast or lunch. Today, it's breakfast: a scone, two hard-boiled eggs, and a cup of tea.

Later, he'll line up for about two hours outside in the rain in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside to find a free lunch or supper. In the last month he's lost eight pounds, an hour and a half of sleep every night, is $7 in debt, and is mentally exhausted.

But Brar is also happy. He believes his month of hardship, nearing its end, has succeeded in bringing public awareness to the realities of living in poverty in British Columbia.

"I was hoping to shine a light on this very profound issue of poverty, and I think that we have been able to do that to some extent. I was also hoping to initiate a debate on this very serious issue of poverty, and I think we've been able to do that a little bit, as well," he told The Tyee over breakfast at the Carnegie.

"I want to take this experience with me to the Legislature and to my caucus, and work with my caucus to build a comprehensive poverty reduction plan with clear targets and clear timelines."

Brar is not the first politician to try to bring awareness to poverty by living it, however. Twenty-five years after fellow New Democratic Party MLA Emery Barnes first lived on welfare for seven weeks, B.C.'s welfare rates have plummeted and restrictions have kept more people off the rolls, some with no other source of income. With both the NDP and the Liberals stalling on welfare changes, finding a solution to decades of grinding poverty will be harder than living on $610 for one month.

'Every day is a struggle': Brar

A single person on welfare like Brar receives $610 per month, a single parent with two kids gets $1,036, and a person on disability receives $906.*

As of Nov. 2011 there were 178,128 people in the province on welfare, according to Raise the Rates, a poverty reduction group based in the Downtown Eastside that invited Brar to take their MLA Welfare Challenge. That's one in 25 British Columbians -- an increase of 34 per cent since 2006, when the unemployment rate was one of the lowest in the country.

Brar says it's the bad economy, which raised unemployment to seven per cent in this province, that has put most people on welfare.

"There are myths out there that people are lazy, they don't want to work, but when you talk to these people you find out that the last thing they want to do is stay on welfare, because staying on welfare, I have seen it now myself, is a huge struggle every day," Brar says. "It is just like you live in a war zone."

Those who have followed Brar's daily blog during the last month know what he means by struggle. The MLA, who has two Master's degrees and makes $100,000 a year, was forced to walk in the pouring rain to find food, shelter, or services; sleep on floors; live in a Downtown Eastside rooming house, where 11 people shared one bathroom; and line up for welfare, food baskets, and free meals -- although he gave back his food hamper and was actually given his "welfare" payment of $610 by Raise the Rates.

Raise the Rates also gave donations to shelters he stayed in, and offered Carnegie meal tickets to people ahead of him in the food line so Brar wouldn't be taking food from those who really need it.

No guaranteed raise

When he hasn't been preoccupied with finding his next meal or a place to rest his head at night, Brar, who once served as the Opposition critic for social development, has been meeting with people living below B.C.'s poverty line, talking about the struggles they face.

Running the gamut from teen moms unable to apply for welfare because of their age or living situations, to farm workers making below minimum wage, to construction workers laid up by illness, disability, or a dried-up economy, Brar is convinced we need to look at much more than "raising the rates" to get people back on their feet.

But he isn't promising that his party, which cut welfare rates in 1996 from $575 to $500, will be raising the rates if they come to power.

"At this point in time, I think that we need to develop this plan. What will be the pillars of this plan, I don't know. I need some time to reflect back, and then take what I heard from people to the caucus, which in my opinion will really be a good policy to help the most needy," he says, adding his decision to accept the MLA Welfare Challenge was a personal, not party, decision.

"My role is not to announce policy here. My role is to influence policy in the caucus, and that's the responsible way to do it, and that's what I will do."

Brar says the fact that fellow NDP MLA Shane Simpson has already put a private member's bill forward to attempt to jumpstart a poverty reduction plan goes to show how committed the NDP are to reducing poverty in this province.

'We're up against an ideological foe': Swanson

Jean Swanson, a 68-year old anti-poverty activist and former welfare recipient who's worked in the Downtown Eastside, has been singing the same tune for 35 years now: increase social housing, increase welfare rates, and increase the minimum wage.

When we meet on a bleak and rainy Sunday in January, Swanson is reaching the end of a long month spent campaigning with Brar, after months of negotiations and planning that have led up to it. During our talk, her voice is fatigued, her eyes a little bloodshot and watery, and her smile tinged with sadness.

She says 26 per cent of the people living in Vancouver live below the poverty line, but doesn't know if that includes students, whose loans aren't considered income. She can't remember if the Liberals cut welfare or just restricted it -- they raised rates by $100 in 2007, but introduced restrictions in 2002 that cut thousands of people from the welfare roles and made it harder to be approved for social assistance. She thinks the NDP cut rates, but she's not sure by how much.

"I've been bonging my head on this wall for at least 35 years and for each callous right here," she says, touching her thin fingers. "We're up against a really hard ideological foe who thinks that the solution to everything is lower and lower wages, and scapegoating people who are poor so other people will work for really low wages, so they can continue to have really high profits."

Swanson and the rest of Raise the Rates have been campaigning for years to bring provincial welfare rates up to the federal government's Market Basket Measure of $1,300 a month for a single person. It still doesn't meet the poverty line for a single person living in a city the size of Vancouver -- $18,759 annually -- but it would keep them off the streets and out of food lines.

Both Swanson and Brar speak of the need to change the 100 per cent earnings exemption for people on welfare who are expected to be able to find work. Any money they make from part time work, of any kind, will be deducted from their cheques if they declare it.

Child support payments are also clawed back by the government -- the only government in Canada to do so -- putting single parents no further ahead than they would be if they didn't receive them at all.

Awareness gets a raise

But it'll take more than just raising welfare rates to reduce homelessness and poverty in B.C. With half a million people in the province falling below Statistics Canada's low-income cut-off rate, but less than 200,000 of them on social assistance, it's not just welfare keeping people down.

"We also want a minimum wage up to $12 an hour, and we want more housing. At least 2,000 units of social housing per year in B.C., in addition to supportive housing," says Swanson.

It's not so far-fetched. She claims that in the 1980s, before the cancellation of the national housing program, an average of 767 units of social housing were built in Vancouver per year. Hong Kong, cited recently as the city with the least affordable housing in the world (Vancouver came second), has some of the most social housing, Swanson argues, with roughly half of residents living in public units.

Though she's hard-pressed to name successes in her 35 years of activism -- a decrease in homophobia is all she can think of -- both Swanson and Brar say the media and public reaction to the MLA Welfare Challenge has been positive. Where once columns and comment sections would be filled with "poor bashing," Swanson says the majority of feedback has been supportive.

"I think one of the things is just the awareness that the last month has built up. The Occupy movement didn't create awareness of inequality, but it certainly focused it," she says.

"We're hoping that this awareness of inequality that's manifested in the Occupy movement is going to have an impact, and people are going to start demanding more equality, and certainly raising the rates would be one way to achieve that."

Higher rates a tough sell

Now that it's over, Raise the Rates isn't sure what to do next. They could invite another MLA to take the challenge, but after two months of attempting to bring MLAs on board last year, only Brar showed any interest.

They're having a meeting early next month to decide their next step, hoping to whip up the public's interest in welfare reform into a fever pitch to press the government for reform.

But it'll be a tough sell to get the B.C. Liberals to change their stance. Premier Christy Clark has ruled out an increase in welfare rates in the near future. In an interview with the Vancouver Courier last week, B.C.'s Social Development Minister Stephanie Cadieux said social assistance rates are a "careful balance we always have to find between what we are able to provide from a financial perspective and what taxpayers feel comfortable with."

When asked why she didn't volunteer for the challenge, she says she didn't believe "there's anything to be learned from doing it."

Brar, in the meantime, will be returning to his caucus, letting them know what people at the lowest levels of income in B.C. to keep themselves in food, shelter, and proper clothing.

But first, he's going to take a shower.

"You're sharing a washroom with probably 15 to 20 people -- that's the norm in any SRO -- so taking a shower is a struggle," he says. "You have to take your laundry outside, and you don't have a fridge to store your groceries, so you have to buy a little bit every day and walk to the grocery store. I don't know how we can expect of those people, that they should go every morning and try to find work."

*Story updated Feb. 1, 2012, at 3:20 p.m.  [Tyee]

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