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Opinion

In BC, Help Out of Poverty... Unless You're on Income Assistance

In that case you're denied supports others in exactly the same financial situations get. Why?

By Paul Willcocks 18 Jan 2016 | TheTyee.ca

Paul Willcocks is a journalist and former publisher of newspapers.

The BC Liberal government just doesn't like people on income and disability assistance.

Seniors, children, it doesn't matter. They're undeserving, denied the help that other families in exactly the same financial situations get.

Don't take it from me. Housing Minister Rich Coleman stood up in the legislature Nov. 5 to talk about the province's Rental Assistance Program and how it changed lives by giving low-income families a little extra money to pay for better nutrition for their children, maybe the chance to join a sports team and, generally, a fair opportunity in life. Coleman talked about one family and how the program had helped ensure their child graduated from high school "and is living a life, and the outcome for that family is exceptional."

BC Housing's RAP program provides monthly payments to low-income families -- under $35,000 in household income -- to help with rent.

Unless they are on income or disability assistance. Those families are specifically excluded from the program.

A Surrey single parent with two children, with an income of $19,600 and rent of $660, would get about $140 a month from RAP to help the family escape poverty.

But her neighbour with exactly the same income and rent -- but on income assistance -- would get nothing.

The government's website includes testimonials from people receiving RAP benefits. They talk about being able to move from dangerous neighbourhoods, better nutrition and taking the first steps out of poverty.

All opportunities denied to people on disability and income assistance and their children.

It's not just families.

The government has a similar program for low-income seniors, called Shelter Aid for Elderly Renters, or SAFER. It provides a subsidy when rents are taking more than 30 per cent of their incomes.

But not for seniors on income assistance or disability assistance.

Imagine two couples in their early 60s living side-by-side in Vancouver apartments. Identical incomes -- about $1,520 -- and rents -- $750.

Every month, one couple gets a cheque for $223, recognizing their tough financial situation. The other couple, on disability assistance, gets nothing.

There is no rational public policy reason for denying some people the help because they are on assistance. They -- and their children -- face the same hardships and lack of opportunities.

In an email, BC Housing said the ban was because people on income or disability assistance get a housing allowance -- $375 a month for individuals, $700 for a family of four. SAFER and RAP are housing supplements, the statement said, and the government has decided "someone in receipt of disability or income assistance payments cannot receive an additional shelter allowance." The bureaucratic answer does not explain why other British Columbians get extra help, but people on assistance do not.

Undeserving?

Perhaps the government just views people on assistance as second-class. It's not an uncommon view. Harvard professor Theda Skocpol researched Tea Party supporters in the U.S., and found they weren't against government support programs -- unless the recipients were "underserving" freeloaders.

Maybe that's how the Christy Clark government sees disability and income assistance recipients. They just need to buck up and get a job. A little suffering is a good incentive for them.

It's an entirely bogus position. About 178,000 people received assistance benefits in October. More than 80 per cent, based on the government's assessment, face big challenges in finding work. Two out of three were receiving disability benefits, others faced "persistent multiple barriers to employment" or medical issues.

That's not to say that they will never work. But the unemployment rate in B.C. was 6.7 per cent in December, and the disabled and those with "persistent multiple barriers" to employment are facing tough competition for few jobs.

Even those who buy the idea that people on income and disability assistance are second-class citizens should be troubled by what that means for children.

The RAP program, after all, is focused on giving children a fair chance in life. But not the 34,000 children whose parents are receiving disability or income assistance.

That makes no sense, morally or economically. Childhood poverty is the overwhelming determinant of a person's future. Outcomes of every kind -- health, employment, education, criminal activity -- are linked to poverty in the early years.

And in B.C., 34,000 children are growing up in poverty -- with grim or dangerous housing, inadequate nutrition, limited opportunities and desperate parents -- because the government has decided they deserve no better.

Ground into deeper poverty

The government has been repeatedly criticized for B.C.'s 20 per cent child poverty rate and the lack of any coherent plan to address the problems. With a simple, relatively inexpensive commitment to raise assistance rates for families, the government could slash the childhood poverty rate by one-fifth.

Instead, the Liberals have ground people on income and disability assistance into deeper poverty. Basic rates haven't increased since 2007.

At the same time, MLAs' pay has been indexed to rise with the cost of living.

And MLAs voted for benefits that allow them up to $1,580 a month for a place to live in Victoria, even though the legislature only sat for 74 days last year.

Yet they claim to believe a person on disability or income assistance can find housing for $375 a month. And that a family of four can find a safe, secure apartment in Vancouver for $700 a month.

That is obviously untrue. So do MLAs not care that 34,000 children are at risk every night in shoddy, even dangerous housing?

If they cared, they would not have awarded themselves rich housing allowances while expecting families to get by on impossibly small shelter funding. If they cared, basic income assistance and disability benefits would not have been frozen since 2007, while their pay is indexed to inflation. If they cared, the government would stop treating assistance recipients as second-class citizens and allow them access to the RAP and SAFER programs.

And, perhaps, if we all cared, the government would not treat so many people as second-class citizens.  [Tyee]

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