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OP/ED: MLAs challenged to live on welfare rates, but decline

At the end of May, an anti-poverty group called Raise the Rates, which is a coalition of over 25 community groups and other organizations, challenged British Columbia’s MLAs to live on the province’s welfare rate of $610 for one month. The last increase in welfare rates was in 2007 when the housing allowance was raised from $325 per month to its current allowance of $375 per month. So far, no MLAs have taken up the challenge. 

“The whole concept was started in the 1970s when Emery Barnes was the MLA for the Downtown East Side,” Katrine Conroy, our MLA for our riding of West Kootenay Boundary, informed me. “And he actually lived on the social assistance rates for one month. It was an interesting experiment as far as that goes, and it’s never been done again over the years. Every once in a while, they [Raise the Rates] send out a request asking people to try it, and a few people have done it for a night. They’ve gone down and participated in the community and talked about what their experiences were.” 

Doing the math here, after the $375 shelter portion of the welfare amount there are $235 for the month to live on - but that’s assuming one can find shelter for $375. Finding shelter for that price every month seems rather unrealistic and more in line with fantasy than reality. Any place that might be found for $375 isn’t likely to be clean or safe. 

But for argument’s sake, let’s assume one can find shelter for that amount. With $235 left, one must buy food, pay whatever utilities are necessary, pay for transportation, buy clothing, and see that all their basic needs are met with that money. 

“The rates are too low,” says Conroy. “It’s really difficult to live on those rates, and it’s difficult to get ahead.” 

But the minister responsible for income assistance disagrees. "We help them with subsidized housing, child-care subsidies, dental and healthcare for their children and a wide range of employment programs," Harry Bloy told the CBC in a recent interview. "They get [Medical Service Plan] at no charge, Pharmacare at no charge. It's not just the $610 we provide." 

While what Bloy says may be true, stretching out that $235 to survive day-to-day apart from the items Bloy lists is nigh on impossible. Heat and electricity may run at about $65 a month on average, give or take, and depending on location. That leaves $170. With a small budget of even $25 per week for food (possible, but far from ideal given grocery costs these days, and the food purchased for $25 wouldn’t be of the greatest quality and the quantity would be very limited), that leaves $70 remaining. 

At this point, things are getting tougher than ever. A return bus trip, let’s say to Trail and back, is $4 (it’s more in other places). And what about shampoo and other toiletries? And what about phone service? One can get fairly cheap cell phone service for $35/month plus HST, which is about $40 total. That leaves $30 for those bus trips and those toiletries. If you forwent the toiletries (which people do) you’d still only get seven return bus trips to Trail for a month. 

This is where the excruciating choices come in. Do I go around unkempt, unclean, and smelly in order to get myself to the Skills Centre in Trail so I can look for a job? Will anyone hire me if I am unkempt, unclean, and smelly? (Chances are, no.) Do I give up having a phone (which aids in job searching) so I can improve my appearance but not be available by phone should a potential employer wish to contact me? Can I afford the extra bus fare to job interviews? Do I sacrifice my food budget and use a food bank so I can purchase some clothing at a thrift store so I have something clean to wear for job searching? And how much will it cost me to launder any clothes I have so I can still be presentable? If I walk everywhere the bus won’t go, or if I run out of transportation money, can I afford to buy shoes when the current ones wear out? What about when winter comes and I need a coat and boots and warmer clothing? 

The list goes on and on. It’s no wonder people living on this paltry amount of money often turn to more nefarious ways of earning income. This is one reason why we have sex trade workers. This is one reason why we have drug dealers. This is one reason why we have panhandlers and squeegie kids. 

Shane Simpson is the MLA for Vancouver-Hastings, and is the NDP critic for Housing and Social Development, the ministry responsible for welfare. On June 2 of this year, he introduced a private members bill, Bill M126, that states, “As a province we continue to have the worst levels of child poverty and overall poverty in Canada. Over 500,000 people in British Columbia live in poverty, and 120,000 of those are children, more than 11 percent of our total population.” 

The legislation would have:

  1. “[established] a minister accountable for poverty reduction in our province and [would] mandate that minister, following a comprehensive consultation process, to report to the Legislature with accompanying legislation to put a comprehensive plan in place that includes identified targets and timelines for poverty reduction”
  2. “[required] that a representative advisory committee be established to support this poverty reduction strategy and that the minister report annually to the House on the progress that is being made on this plan”

 

The bill also laid out strategies for good quality early childhood care and learning, particularly for children under the age of five. The bill died on the order papers. 

“We will bring it back again, as we have done in the past, and keep trying to push it,” Conroy said, noting that sometimes private members bills are picked up by the government, though she stated that she doesn’t see the Liberals picking up this particular piece of legislation.  

Which is a shame, because as things stand right now, those 500,000 people living in poverty currently in BC are likely to stay poor for a very long time.