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'Welfare to Work' Didn't Work

BC Libs sat on own report showing no real gains.

By Bruce Wallace 12 Nov 2007 |

Bruce Wallace is with the Vancouver Island Public Interest Research Group (VIPIRG).

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Homeless in Vancouver. Photo by C. Grabowski.

The B.C. government claims to be doing a great job of moving people off welfare into better lives. But its own welfare ministry, the Ministry of Employment and Income Assistance, compiled a report in February 2007, titled Outcomes of Those Leaving Assistance, that summarizes new research contradicting the government's claims of success.

And the government waited eight months to release that report, until a reporter surfaced its existence just last month.

Five years of 'good news'

For the first time, the ministry has been able to track the tax returns of people who no longer access welfare to determine how many are working. This new report clearly shows there has been no increase in the numbers of employable welfare clients declaring employment income after leaving welfare.

For five years, the welfare ministry has been telling us that the massive reduction in our welfare caseload was due to successfully moving people from welfare to work. We were fed a good news story that its strict welfare policies resulted in "better lives, more independence and a higher standard of living for many British Columbians."

In 2002, the ministry promised "to end the culture of welfare dependency and introduce a new era of employment and self-sufficiency," and with each drop in the caseload, it reported "our approach is working."

Most recently, Claude Richmond, the minister responsible for welfare in B.C., wrote a letter to the editor of the Times-Colonist stating, "Federal/provincial taxation data shows 81.5 per cent of expected-to-work clients who left income assistance did so for employment."

Investigative reporter Andrew MacLeod at Monday Magazine contacted the ministry, requested the source of this new statistic and uncovered the unreleased six-page report (which was then posted on the ministry's website following his request).

No increase in welfare to work

The objective of the report is to finally determine if more people are being moved from welfare to work since the government's welfare changes of 2002. While the minister's letter assures us that 81.5 per cent of expected-to-work clients who left income assistance did so for employment, this is actually a small reduction from the past when 83 per cent declared employment income.

Despite all of the programming and claims of success, there has been no noticeable increase in moving employable clients from welfare to work.

In addition, the research reports on only the 75 per cent of clients who actually filed a tax return, meaning even less is known about the well-being of a quarter of past welfare clients.

The real variable: barriers to getting aid

Of greater concern is the unreported fact that the more vulnerable clients are less likely to be employed since the introduction of the new welfare rules.

As the ministry's report states now, "[l]ess than one-half of Persons with Persistent Multiple Barriers (PPMB) clients have employment income in the year after exiting IA (40.4 per cent)." This is a significant reduction from the pre-2002 rate of 56.3 per cent. These are people without incomes and without welfare. While many have just been shifted from provincial welfare to federal CPP benefits, there are many unknowns. It would be fair to conclude that moving more people with persistent and multiple barriers off welfare but not into jobs could be contributing to homelessness in B.C.

Yes, the ministry can claim the "lowest level on income assistance in 25 years," but with this new report, it cannot claim that this massive caseload reduction was due to more people moving from welfare to work. Just helping far fewer people is not necessarily good news if they are not better off.

Of course, the bigger story is what is not in the report. Just because someone reports employment earnings, even $10, does that mean they are self sufficient or better off? While the report counts the number of people declaring income on their tax returns, it does not tell us how much income was declared.

Where's the promised performance measure?

Are people better off working than on welfare? In 2002, when the public was told our welfare system was being changed to move people from welfare dependency to self sufficiency, the ministry promised a performance measure that would track the outcomes of its policies, specifically asking, "Are families better off (i.e., do they have more income) once they leave income assistance?" This new research fails again to provide the necessary evidence to assure public accountability.

Finally, this report continues to focus all of our attention on those leaving welfare, when the dramatic caseload reduction in B.C. has been largely a result of changes to the front door of welfare. Last year, I co-authored the report Denied Assistance: Closing the Front Door on Welfare in B.C., which analyzes ministry statistics obtained through FOI requests that show the drop in the province's welfare caseload is not the result of more people leaving welfare, but rather fewer people entering the system and accessing assistance. Where is the ministry research that follows the tax returns of the thousands of people denied welfare?

Again, in 2003, the ministry promised future surveys to follow up with those who sought welfare but were diverted (didn't get it), to see if they had found employment. Again, this report breaks that promise of accountability. In fact, there are currently no evaluations or performance measures to ensure accountability focused on the drastic changes to the eligibility criteria and application process that have arguably played the most significant role in reducing the welfare caseload in B.C.

Change the story

The government's tired narrative about more people leaving welfare for work is not supported by its own evidence. Welfare reform in B.C. cannot be declared a success. The government clearly needs to address the much more complex goal of reducing poverty, not just reducing the caseload.

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