This election campaign has seen a lot of talk about crime and public safety related to tent cities and the threat they pose to communities.
There’s been less talk about the root cause of the encampments — poverty.
“This whole system is falling apart because we’ve just frozen it in time where everything magically cost $375,” said Karen Ward, a community advocate who lives in the Downtown Eastside. That’s the amount single people on income and disability assistance get for rent in British Columbia.
“People can’t get out of poverty — where are you going to rent?”
The BC NDP released the province’s first ever poverty reduction strategy in 2019. Advocates had been calling on government to develop such a strategy for years, and Viveca Ellis, a member of the BC Poverty Reduction Coalition, says the strategy marked “a new era” in poverty reduction in B.C.
“The pandemic has revealed how much more we must do urgently,” Ellis said. “We cannot afford to lose any ground. We need to further prioritize a poverty reduction strategy for B.C. and increase and intensify it.”
But so far, the NDP has made only modest increases to social assistance and disability benefits, and advocates say the gap between the benefits and what people need to live a healthy life is still vast.
Foundations for Social Change, a charity organization, recently completed a research project where 50 unhoused people were given $7,500 with no strings attached. The results were overwhelmingly positive, said Claire Williams, CEO of the organization.
“We’ve learned through our pilot project that people who are receiving income assistance or persons with disabilities [benefits] — it’s just not nearly enough,” Williams said.
“When we look at what’s happened with the pandemic, and the federal government’s response through CERB [Canada Emergency Response Benefit] was saying ‘We’re going to give you $2,000.’ To me that indicates that $2,000 is the minimum people need to stay housed and well-fed.”
The current social assistance rate for a single person in B.C. is $710. “That’s $1,300 shy of the bare minimum that’s required,” Williams said.
The need is pressing, said Williams. One-third of British Columbians struggle to pay their bills, while one out of five children in B.C. live in poverty.
Here’s where the parties stand on poverty reduction.
The BC NDP platform offers a range of one-time benefits tied to the COVID-19 pandemic, including a $1,000 benefit to families with household incomes under $125,000 a year and a similar $500 benefit for individuals who make up to $62,000.
The NDP government also boosted income and disability benefits by $300 starting in March but has so far declined to make the change permanent.
The New Democrats are promising to make transit free for kids up to the age of 12. That’s a win for the BC Poverty Reduction Coalition, which has been campaigning to make a range of services free for everyone — from health care to transportation to internet service. The coalition would like to see all transit be free to use, starting with free fares for youth up to age 18.
The NDP are also promising a new rent supplement for people who live in supportive housing and are ready to move on to independent living in the private market or non-market housing.
When it comes to housing, the NDP says it has already built 2,800 new units of supportive housing but will increase that number to 5,000 over 10 years. But the BC Poverty Reduction Coalition is calling for 10,000 units to be built per year.
The NDP has also promised to make contraception free and has committed to creating a period poverty task force.
The BC Liberals are promising to exceed the NDP’s pace of building supportive housing and are promising to better fund addictions and mental health programs for that housing.
The Liberals are also promising to immediately implement $10-a-day child care for all low-income families. While the BC NDP has started to roll out a $10-a-day child care program, a limited number of families have gotten the full subsidy so far.
And the party says its proposal to eliminate the seven-per-cent sales tax for a year and then restore it at three per cent for at least a year will benefit people living in poverty.
The BC Greens are campaigning on a promise to gradually implement a guaranteed basic income, starting with a basic income for youth aging out of government care. Their platform does not specify how much the basic income would be.
The Greens are also promising to make permanent the extra $300 for people who receive income assistance or disability benefits.
The party says it would also eliminate the asset test that bars some people from receiving benefits and would allow people to earn more employment income without losing benefits. And the party would establish a 12-month period where people who qualify for income assistance can earn extra income without any reduction of their benefits.
Ellis said the BC Poverty Reduction Coalition doesn’t yet have a position on guaranteed income. The provincial government is due to report back on a study of basic income sometime next year, Ellis said.