Jessica Sothcott could work and earn as much as $9,600 a year without it affecting the amount she receives in disability payments, but every dollar she receives in child support from her daughter's father is deducted in full from what the government will provide.
"I was shocked," said the mother of two who was at the British Columbia legislature with her 14-year-old daughter Rosalie on Wednesday to draw attention to the issue.
Sothcott said she raised the matter with the office that administers the province's Person With Disability benefits. "When I finally got on PWD, I went there and I said, 'Why are you taking my child support off my cheque still, because I'm allowed to earn $800 a month?' And they said, 'Oh, you don't earn that money.'
"I walked away," she said. "I didn't know what to say. I'm like, well, I'm pretty sure I do."
Disability payments from the government cover Sothcott's rent in subsidized housing in downtown Victoria, leaving $500 a month for everything else, including nearly $200 for medication to treat what she described as a workplace injury.
The child support payments that the government claws back are $187 a month, she said.
"Having that money would mean a lot for both of us," said Sothcott. "It would mean more food. It would mean maybe being able to go out to a beach somewhere, pay for gas. It would mean her having pocket money to spend time with her friends, go to movies, do normal teenager stuff and not have to worry about what we're eating for dinner."
'It's so dumb'
"I think the clawback, that whole thing is ridiculous," said Rosalie, a Grade 8 student at Colquitz Middle School. "Why are you taking a 14-year-old girl's money? I just think it's so dumb."
Rosalie has a 21-year old brother who has had difficulty finding work. He eats with Rosalie and her mom, but sleeps at his stepfather's house. "We don't skip meals, just my mom does," said Rosalie. "She has to sometimes not eat so we can have enough food."
Over the past month, the provincial New Democrats have hammered the B.C. government for clawing back child support money from single parents who receive disability or welfare payments, making the point that many people, mainly women and their children living in poverty, are in the same situation.
"There are many children who are impacted by this policy who can't share their story, they're too young," said Michelle Mungall, the NDP critic for social development.
"For as long as their parent is on income assistance -- and for many it will be for their life because their parents have disabilities that prevent them from working -- those children will not be able to access their child support," she said, noting it's courageous of Rosalie to share her story.
Growing economy will help: premier
Sothcott said she wasn't interested in politics and has never voted, but seeing the NDP fight to end the clawback of child support was inspiring. "I'm seeing it in a different light now," she said. "I think it's time people stand up and start fighting... That's hopeful because the current government is wrong on so many levels."
With the Sothcotts watching, NDP leader John Horgan raised the issue in the legislature.
"Being a single parent is difficult," responded Premier Christy Clark, who is divorced from the father of her 12-year old son. "Any of us who experience that on a day-to-day basis know how hard it is, but for some parents it is a lot more difficult than it is for others."
At the same time, the government needs to be fair both to people who are dependent on the system and to people who pay taxes, said Clark, who as premier makes around $180,000 a year.
"The reason that the government asks for that money back is because it's income," she said. While some parents might receive quite a bit of child support, others receive little, she said. "We want to make sure we're fair across the system."
The main thing the government can do is help parents get back into the workforce, she said. "We believe on this side of the house that the best and the only way to lift people out of poverty, to lift families out of poverty, is to grow the economy."
Horgan said it's ludicrous to tell someone the government has acknowledged has a disability and needs support to find a job.
"I thought it was impossible, but somehow the premier just said liquefied natural gas is going to help people on disability income assistance feed their children," he said. "I don't know how that's going to happen, but apparently in the world the premier lives in, that's the case."
Clark later told reporters she favours raising assistance rates, particular for people with disabilities, once the provincial economy and government budget can sustain the increase.
"We need to do it when we can afford it, and it needs to be done across the board," she said. "When it comes to child support payments, some are quite small, some are quite large. I don't think taxpayers across the province would say that in the case of every child support payment, they would like to add on their support for people who may or may not need it."
Change 'comes at an expense': minister
B.C.'s Social Development Minister Don McRae told The Tyee that while he's sympathetic, the government can't afford the roughly $17 million it would cost to allow parents receiving government benefits to keep child support payments.
"You know what, I would like to continue to reform income assistance opportunities or programs in the province," he said. “One of the things I'd like to do is grow the economy so we can make these choices. There's lots of good ideas out there, by all means."
Asked why child support payments are clawed back while money from earned income is not, McRae said, "That was a policy decision based before my time."
He added, "Income assistance is income of last resort. The first responsibility is for the parents to pay for the children's needs. That's what we want to happen in British Columbia."
McRae left the door open to making the change. "When we brought the first phase of reforms two years ago, we never said we were done reforming right, so there's always ways to sand the edges on a policy to make it better, make it more responsive to the needs of people," he said.
"I can't say today we're making a change tomorrow, because every time you make a change, it comes at an expense."
Clark has 'zero idea', says single mom
In the end, Sothcott said what she heard during Question Period was insulting. "It's clear to me they don't care," she said. "They do not care about the children of B.C., they do not care about my child. They don't care."
She questioned how much Clark understands about the reality people like her face. "I'd love to be a single mom in her position," she said. "Guess how much I made last year. Less than $10,000. I'd like her to take my place and talk about being a single mom."
Nor did Sothcott, who worked until she was injured in 2012, find Clark's get-a-job approach helpful. "I should get a job, right," she said. "It's unbelievable to me. She has zero idea, she has no idea what real life is like."
She did, however, say she hoped her daughter would learn it's important to fight for what's right and to not get discouraged. "I'm happy we came," she said. "That woman needs to change the policy. It's wrong."
The NDP last week introduced a poverty reduction and economic inclusion bill, symbolic legislation unlikely to win support from the BC Liberal-dominated legislature.
"I'm the product of a single parent family," Horgan said that day. "I'm the product of being raised in poverty as a young child, and I now stand before you because of the opportunity that was given to me by faith communities, by neighbours, by community and by government, to say that I want to be the next premier of British Columbia. That speaks to giving opportunity and hope to people who are living in poverty and mired, in some cases, in cyclical poverty."
The NDP supports a model where child support payments do not count as income and therefore do not reduce a family's income assistance, he said. There are all kinds of places the government could find $17 million to help those families, he said. The provincial budget is in the order of $44 billion.