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BC's Poor Poverty Record, Explained

Will the last decade of idle welfare rates and spiking homelessness continue after May 14?

By Andrew MacLeod 6 May 2013 |

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

The expression of outrage at British Columbia's dismal record on poverty has become an annual affair in the province.

Each year Statistics Canada releases figures showing B.C. is either the worst in the country or close to it on poverty in general, and on child poverty in particular. The opposition MLAs rightly point out the performance is shameful and the government responds by saying things are getting better and the statistics are out of date.

The most recent numbers, as quoted in the advocacy group First Call's report from November 2012, show B.C. with a poverty rate of 15.5 per cent using StatsCan's low income tax cut offs. That's bad enough to be the worst in Canada.

For child poverty, the province's rate is 14.3 per cent, making it the worst in Canada with the exception of Manitoba. "B.C. had the most unequal distribution of income among rich and poor families with children," the report noted. "The ratio of the average incomes of the richest 10 per cent compared to the poorest 10 per cent was the worst of any province at 13.8 to one."

The figures point to real suffering, whether it is children who go to school without breakfast, families that strain to afford basic necessities, or adults who can't afford a place to live.

The issue is undeniably complex, but there are many ways that governments can help. They include raising the minimum wage, lifting welfare rates, increasing child tax benefits, supporting immigrants and refugees, making the tax system fairer, funding more child care, making post-secondary education more affordable and providing more non-market or subsidized housing.

On many of these files, the Liberal government has been either absent or made things worse. Income assistance policies were rewritten to make it more difficult to receive help. Rates, already low, stayed low. The numbers receiving help plunged while the number of people living without homes, not just in Vancouver but throughout the province, surged.

The minimum wage stayed frozen for a decade, with small raises made only after the BC Liberals changed leaders, making Christy Clark premier. The government's been playing catch-up with mixed results on subsidized housing after several years of reduced funding. Tax cuts disproportionately favoured businesses and high-income earners who had more income to keep.

NDP raise 'won't tackle poverty one iota': welfare advocate

The NDP has been consistently critical of the government. Leader Adrian Dix talks about inequality being the province's biggest problem and has said a government he leads would have a goal of ending child poverty. The party has also committed to implementing a poverty reduction strategy with timelines and targets, which it says would take a year to consult on and write.

On April 19, the NDP announced they would commit $210 million a year to a B.C. Family Bonus that would provide up to $829 a year for each child younger than 18 years old. The full amount would go to families where the annual income is under $25,000 and would be phased out for households earning more than $66,000.

The NDP also announced they would raise welfare rates by $20 a month and double to $400 the amount of money a person receiving income assistance is allowed to earn before their assistance from the government is reduced.

Bill Hopwood, an organizer with the advocacy group Raise the Rates, criticized the raise as too small to make a difference in people's lives. "Twenty dollars a month, it's just going to vanish," Hopwood told The Tyee.

Most of it will go to higher rents, amounting to a subsidy for landowners, he said. "It won't tackle poverty one iota."

Dix, when asked in December specifically about welfare rates, said, "In the long term... we have to address that by ensuring people have more power in the economy and that will come with having a higher level of skills."

'A bad time to be poor'

First Call quotes the BC Conservative Party's website saying, "a strong social safety net which protects those who truly need support, while encouraging individuals to be self-sufficient," but notes the party provides no further details as to what that might mean.

The BC Green Party's core principles say "the worldwide increase in poverty and inequity is unacceptable."

The party's social services platform says it would start by "replacing all existing income assistance programs with a Guaranteed Livable Income." They would also exempt anyone living below the poverty line from paying provincial income tax.

In 2003, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives published a report titled "A Bad Time to be Poor" about poverty and welfare in B.C. A decade later, it's a no better time to be poor and it's unclear whether it will be anytime soon.  [Tyee]

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