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Time to Up Welfare Payments

Let's tell government to stop playing Scrooge.

Jean Swanson 26 Dec 2005TheTyee.ca

Jean Swanson (swancam at vcn.bc.ca) is co-ordinator of the Carnegie Community Action Project in Vancouver. She has been an anti-poverty activist for 30 years and wrote the book, Poor Bashing: The politics of exclusion.

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Homeless in Vancouver. Photo by C. Grabowski

Welfare's not a seasonal problem. But anyone interested in the issue might want to pick this time to pressure the government to improve welfare rates and rules. (See below for contact details.)

Why is it important to write the letter now? According to the December 2nd Globe and Mail, BC's Minister of Employment and Income Assistance Claude Richmond said that income assistance rates are "currently under review in anticipation of next year's budget." Budgets are usually introduced in the provincial legislature in the later part of February. Letters aren't the most exciting means of pressuring governments but this government did respond to a lot of letters and phone calls about the welfare time limits a couple years ago.

Here are some reasons for increasing welfare rates and ending barriers to getting on welfare.

First, the shelter rate doesn't provide safe housing: people who are forced to rely on welfare, or are homeless because they can't get housing are really suffering. One homeless man died on the street in the Downtown Eastside earlier this month. Service workers across the province say they cannot find safe, healthy housing for people who have to rely on the meager shelter portion of welfare to pay rent. In the Downtown Eastside, according to a Vancouver City report, only 19 per cent of rooms rent for $325 or less, the welfare shelter allowance for a single person.

Undernourished

Second, the support rate doesn't provide healthy diet. In a November, 2005 report, the Dieticians of Canada said that welfare rates are not high enough for people to eat a healthy diet, or any diet, for that matter. They say a family of four on welfare won't have any money left to spend on food if they pay average amounts for rent and other daily living costs. The government's own Provincial Health Officer, Dr. Perry Kendall, says in his 2005 report on diabetes, that "social assistance and low-income supports" should be tied to the cost of a healthy food basket to "reverse the associations between low income, food insecurity and chronic disease."

Third, BC welfare rates aren't high compared to other provinces. There's a myth that people come to BC due to its higher welfare rates, and Richmond says he doesn't want BC rates to be higher than other provinces. No problem. According to the National Council of Welfare, "Welfare Incomes Report, 2004" BC's rate for single "employable" people is below the rates in the three territories, Newfoundland and Labrador, Quebec and Ontario.

Red tape for the poor

Fourth, Vancouver has the highest cost of living of any city in Canada according to a 2001 Quality of Life Report from Vancouver's Social Planning Department. The report says Vancouver's housing costs are two to four times higher than the other cities surveyed.

Fifth, welfare used to be better. When Richmond was Minister for the Social Credit government, back in 1989, a single so-called employable person got $193 a month (it's $185 today) for the support part of welfare (everything but rent). The shelter rate in 1989 was $275, for a total of $468. According to the Bank of Canada inflation calculator, the welfare rate today would have to be $669 to have the same purchasing power that it did in 1989. In fact, the current rate is $510.

Sixth, virtually all reports on homelessness in BC say that one of the big causes is that people are not able to get or stay on welfare. That's because welfare rules and procedures are cumbersome, bureaucratic, and degrading. These rules, like the three-week wait for assistance after you apply, the two-year independence test, the requirement for employment plans, need to be abolished.

Seventh, welfare spending helps community businesses. Unlike money spent by government on tax loopholes for the rich, money spent by the government on welfare goes directly into the community where people live to pay for rent, transportation, food and other living costs. If welfare rates were set at humane levels, it would help "revitalize" the Downtown Eastside and other poor neighbourhoods in BC.

Plenty of millionaires

Finally, the wealthy are doing ok. BC has over 56,000 millionaire families who have a total of about $150 billion in wealth, according to "Rags and Riches," a report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. The annual budget for the Ministry of Employment and Income Assistance (welfare) is about $1.35 billion to serve about 324,000 people with income assistance and other programs.

Send a message

So, a letter off to Claude Richmond will hopefully be part of getting a more humane welfare system for everyone.

Here's some information that might help you write a letter to Richmond to argue for better welfare rates and rules. Richmond's address is PO Box 9058, STN PROV GOVT, Victoria, BC, V8W 9E1. His fax number is 250-356-7292. Insiders say snail mail letters are more effective than email letters but here is his email address: [email protected]

Jean Swanson [email protected] is co-ordinator of the Carnegie Community Action Project in Vancouver. She has been an anti-poverty activist for 30 years and wrote the book, Poor Bashing: The politics of exclusion.  [Tyee]

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