Opinion

BC Is Thriving, Yet Our Most Marginalized Remain in Deep Poverty

We’ve needed fair income assistance rates for years now. Small steps forward are not enough.

By Kell Gerlings 29 Mar 2019 | TheTyee.ca

Kell Gerlings is campaign coordinator with Raise the Rates B.C.

$760. Wow, you might think. What a score for a bedroom in a shared house in East Vancouver. Or maybe a holiday flight to Toronto. $760. If you’re the type, maybe a fancy pair of shoes?

$760 is a lot of things, and sometimes it’s a lot of money. Except when it is literally everything you have to survive on in a month.

$760 is the latest amount that a single person receiving income assistance will get each month in British Columbia. This is after a decade of rates being frozen under the previous government and the first increase since an initial boost in September 2017.

Please show me a single place in the Lower Mainland where you can rent a one-bedroom or even bachelor suite for $760 a month, let alone the designated “shelter rate” portion of $375.

So often, the group I work with, Raise the Rates BC, encounters the misguided belief that being in poverty means you just need to budget better or pull up your bootstraps and get a job.

But when the total amount of money you have to live on leaves no room for adequate food, clothing, shelter, transit, hygienic care, a visit to the dentist or a cell phone (to look for that job you’re supposed to be trying to find), no amount of budgeting or individualized effort makes getting off of welfare possible.

And of course, that’s assuming you’re able to access income supports in the first place, considering the ominously long application.

The thing that really got me mad after the B.C. government’s 2019 budget and in the recent reveal of the province’s first-ever poverty reduction “strategy” is how overwhelmingly clear it is that there is loads of room for a far more significant increase to income assistance.

Every time the government announces a healthy surplus, it feels like salt in the wound: “Look at all the things we did, and we still have money to spare.” Meanwhile, those on income assistance continue to face severe deprivation and legislated poverty.

That $760 a month is what we call “deep poverty,” and many of the nearly 190,000 people surviving on income assistance in B.C. live deeply below the poverty line. Federally, the poverty line is measured at the “Market Basket Measure” of around $1,600/month for a single person. $760 is less than half that amount.

The obvious question is, “but why?” Why doesn’t the government understand the depths of poverty in which it is keeping people? Why don’t they do something to help, if the money is so obviously there?

According to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives calculations (which echo similar numbers from the Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction), it would cost a mere $365 million to raise everyone receiving income assistance (welfare and disability) to 75 per cent of the poverty line. It would cost $1.16 billion to raise everyone to that poverty line.

This is a fraction of the subsidies promised to, for example, the liquefied natural gas industry. It’s around one per cent of the GDP of our wealthy province.

There is an answer to this rhetorical question, “but why?”

For all the talk and show of the “TogetherBC” poverty reduction plan, decades of austerity politics under a neoliberal system ensures that the government still refuses to see the poorest people and people with disabilities as worthy, of support or even part of our society.

It’s because of the stigma we carry in our middle- to upper-class hearts about poverty: that it’s an individual’s fault and therefore an individual’s responsibility. If you can’t work, you don’t have worth.

It’s because in our so-called democratic system, minority governments focus mostly on staying in power and refuse to plan for long-term, sustainable benefits to our society.

I want to challenge the government and all of the ministers to prove me wrong. Show me not just that you understand that ending deep poverty benefits all of society (for the $8 to 9 billion that is saved in reduced strains on the system, and for the proven benefits of a more equal society), but that you will take action.

Do something about that $760 per month. Act like this is the crisis it is, and take action beyond incremental steps. The money is there, so show me, and the 190,000 people on income assistance that you truly believe people on welfare are human beings who deserve to live in dignity.  [Tyee]

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