The provincial government says its 2017 budget pledges more than $1 billion additional dollars for kids and youth over the next three years, supporting education, mental health and child welfare services.
But critics say the budget provides little relief for the 20 per cent of children and families who live in poverty.
Finance Minister Mike De Jong, in his budget speech, said spending on education makes sense. “We know this — on average, the better trained and educated a person is, the healthier they will be because they make better decisions for themselves and their family,” he said. He said per-student funding for public education has risen to almost $9,000 per student from $6,262 in 2001.
The budget includes plans to reduce Medical Service Plan premiums on Jan. 1, eliminating payments for two-parent, two-child families earning under $35,000. The government announced last week that disability assistance rates will increase by $50 a month starting April 1, while families on income assistance will see their rates stay frozen for the tenth year in a row.
BC Centre for Policy Alternatives senior economist Iglika Ivanova said the budget failed to offer meaningful measures to increase child care spaces. Child care subsidies also remained frozen at 2005 rates.
The lack of child care is tied to child poverty, she said, because many young parents can’t earn enough to pay for the child care. Instead, they’re forced to give up work to care for their children. “You are looking at a higher risk of poverty because the costs of living here are such that it would be very hard to live on just one income,” she said.
The education budget projected an additional $740 million over three years, an increase of 6.3 per cent from this year’s funding by 2019. About $320 million will be used to hire more teachers as a result of last fall’s Supreme Court of Canada ruling that restored class size and composition caps and teacher-to-student ratios that the government illegally stripped from teachers’ contracts in 2001.
De Jong noted this isn’t the full amount government will pay to restore teachers’ contracts, as negotiations with the BC Teachers’ Federation are continuing. The union hopes to reach an agreement within two weeks and government has set aside another $1 billion over the next three years to restore the contract conditions.
The education budget has also been increased by $228 million over three years to reflect enrolment growth. The government plans to eliminate bus fees for all but international students and the Rural Education Enhancement Fund, aimed at preventing school closures, will increase from $1.8 million to $3 million annually.
In total, public school funding will increase from $5.1 billion to nearly $5.4 billion this year, while private schools will receive an additional $25.3 million, bringing government’s total contribution to those schools up to $383.2 million annually.
The government is pledging $2 billion over three years for building new schools and seismic upgrading projects.
Teresa Rezansoff, head of the BC School Trustees Association and a school trustee since 1999, said the budget was the “first time I’ve ever heard government say that one of the most critical areas of spending is public education.”
Student loan interest rates reduced
Thirty post-secondary institutions will see new or expanded trades training and research development capital projects through the federal Strategic Initiatives Fund, with costs shared with the province.
But other than Emily Carr University of Art and Design, which will see a $14.3 million increase in operating funds for its new Vancouver campus over three years, post-secondary operating funds will increase by just one per cent. In fact, the entire post-secondary budget is estimated to increase by five per cent over the next three years to $2.1 billion.
Student loan interest rates will be reduced to the prime rate from prime plus 2.5 per cent, a move the BC Federation of Students says brings the province down from the highest interest rates in Canada to close to average.
A new fixed contribution model for student loans will allow students to earn some money while studying without affecting their financial assistance. But no new needs-based grants or loans were announced.
More money for children’s ministry
The Ministry of Children and Family Development will receive an additional $267 million over three years to address recommendations in reports by Bob Plecas and Chief Ed John. Supports for families of children with special needs and child welfare prevention initiatives will also receive additional funding.
In total, the ministry budget will increase 10 per cent this fiscal year, followed by two years of spending freezes.
The funding is very welcome, said Ivanova. “Unfortunately, so many children had to die and youth in care had to suffer neglect and abuse for the government to be shamed into acting finally on child protection services,” she said.
The health and children’s ministries will receive additional funds for mental health and addictions supports, including $45 million over three years for the children’s ministry youth counselling and mental health treatment. The ministry said that will allow it to provide supports for an additional 7,000 youths per year.
The health ministry will spend $12 million to provide 28 additional addictions treatment beds, though it’s unclear if that is in addition to the previously announced 52 youth beds expected this year. Another $5 million will go towards post-secondary students’ mental health supports.
In addition to the 13,000 new child care spaces government has already pledged to create by 2020, the budget promises 2,000 new spaces. But there is no money to reduce the cost of child care, and subsidy rates and income cutoffs haven’t changed since 2005, said Ivanova.
“Even if you qualify for the maximum subsidy, you have thousands of dollars of out-of-pocket fees,” she said, adding that child care costs have increased at two to three times the inflation rate.
In her response to the budget in the legislature, NDP finance critic Carole James noted more than half of British Columbians are living paycheque to paycheque.
“There’s only one reason we’re seeing the premier trying to make you forget about her record, and that’s because the election is three months away, she’s been getting some bad headlines, and the people can see what she really cares about,” James said. “We will not forget, the public will not forget.”