British Columbia is the only province in Canada to place an arbitrary time limit on welfare eligibility. The provincial government has instituted a rule limiting social assistance eligibility to only 24 out of every 60 months. Starting on April 1st 2004, "employable" people who have received welfare for two years will be cut off.
"Employable" people with children over three will not be cutoff, but will lose $100 per month from a cheque that is already inadequate to meet basic needs. Housing experts predict that more women and children will be homeless after April 1 because they will not be able to pay their rent.
The flat denial of welfare, and the reduction of an already inadequate rate, based on a time limit, is a serious break with Canadian social policy of the last fifty years. Canada has built a somewhat patchy, but important social safety net, based on an understanding that collectively we should provide everyone with protections against "universal risks to income", that is, against those natural and market events that can make any one of us unable to provide for ourselves and our families - sickness, disability, old age, child-bearing, unemployment and underemployment. We have agreed that Canada should distribute its resources in a way that provides a social minimum when these events threaten our security, either temporarily or permanently.
Not about laziness
Social assistance is the very bottom of the social safety net, available only to those who are in the most extreme need, who have no employment, and who have exhausted their savings and any other benefits to which they may be entitled.
Now British Columbia is about to cut people off social assistance - not because they are no longer in need, but because their period of need has lasted longer than the government would like. The predictable results will be: British Columbians begging and stealing to survive; women and girls under pressure to exchange sex for money, or for food and shelter; and more men, women and children homeless, hungry and without adequate clothing.
This is a significant step away from the Canadian social solidarity that we have taken pride in. All Canadians should care about what vision of society this policy offers. It blames the poorest of us for our poverty. It harkens back to an old social Darwinism, implying that the market always rewards fairly those who compete, and that those who stumble are lazy and undeserving of our concern. But the market is not even-handed. In fact, it disproportionately rewards the rich, and recent decades of social policy have been designed to soften the edges of market-created inequalities.
People who are poor are not lazier than people who are rich. They are competing for marginal jobs in a provincial economy where average unemployment stands at 9 percent, and rates in rural areas are much higher. Nonetheless, Premier Campbell, following in the footsteps of Premiers Klein and Harris, is bent on persuading us to divide ourselves from those who are poor in Canada, to treat them as "other", as market failures who can be punished and abandoned with impunity.
Violates basic human rights
Not only is the 24-month cutoff bad social policy, based on inaccurate assertions and prejudices, it also violates basic human rights values that Canadians share, and that are expressed in both the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and in international human rights treaties that Canada has ratified.
Section 7 of the Charter guarantees everyone the rights to life, liberty and security of the person. Access to welfare is so closely connected to basic health and survival that a meaningful interpretation of this guarantee must recognize government's obligation to provide welfare to a person in need.
Section 15 of the Charter guarantees everyone equality, without discrimination based on race, sex, disability and other factors. The core value of this guarantee is that every person is equal in worth and dignity. In a country as wealthy as Canada, to refuse assistance to a person in need, as Premier Campbell will do in just four months, is a blatant signal that that person is not regarded as equal in worth. Canada's constitutional equality guarantee requires governments to recognize that poor people in general, and people who rely on social assistance in particular, are a group that is negatively stereotyped and politically marginalized. The onus is on governments to lessen this prejudice and inequality, not compound it.
Constitutional challenge in the works
Lack of access to adequate social assistance also exacerbates the inequality of other disadvantaged groups -- women, Aboriginal peoples, people of colour, and people with disabilities -- who are all over-represented among the poor. Their higher rates of poverty are one outcome of the diverse forms of discrimination they experience. Poor-bashing agendas that deepen pre-existing disadvantage by depriving people of access to food, clothing and shelter are inconsistent with our commitment to equality.
Rights to food, clothing and housing are also recognized as fundamental human rights in international treaties. Particularly important is Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. It obligates Canada to progressively realize the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living including adequate food, clothing, and housing. Canada ratified this treaty in 1976, with the consent of the Province of British Columbia.
Sections 7 and 15 of the Charter are understood to give life to Canada's international human rights obligations, and to provide for the enforceability of those rights by Canadian courts. During times when governments' commitment to human rights is weak, it is especially important that courts ensure that every person, including the poorest and most disadvantaged, is treated with respect and concern.
Non-governmental organizations and lawyers are preparing a constitutional challenge to the 24-month cutoff rule now. But destitute people should not be forced to turn to the courts. Before a challenge is brought to court, the Government of British Columbia should simply repeal this bad law. It breaks with the Canadian social compact, violates basic human rights and abandons the most vulnerable people in the province.
Gwen Brodsky and Shelagh Day are Directors of the Poverty and Human Rights Project in Vancouver, and research associates with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. They are working with others on the constitutional challenge to the 24-month time limit.