A BC poverty reduction plan is long overdue

February 23, 2017

As the BC government prepares to table its budget on February 21 and political parties try to convince British Columbians to vote for them in May, they all need to focus on poverty – specifically, how to reduce it throughout the province. 

At 13.2 per cent, BC’s poverty rate is the second highest in the country. Yet we are the only province in Canada without a poverty reduction plan. 

When asked about the call for a poverty reduction plan, the government points to its Jobs Plan. However, a report recently published by our organizations, Long Overdue: Why BC needs a poverty reduction plan, shows how jobs alone are not the answer. 

First, while a good job is indeed a route out of poverty for some, a large share of the poor are already employed in low-wage jobs. It is a common misconception that the poor are mostly on social assistance. In fact, about half of those living below the poverty line are either the working poor or children of the working poor. While over 13 per cent of British Columbians live in poverty, only about four per cent rely on social assistance at any given time. 

Second, the data show that poverty has not been meaningfully reduced with the current approach. Today, BC’s poverty rate is virtually unchanged from before the 2008 recession when the broad call for a provincial poverty reduction plan was first issued. Poverty rates also remain much higher than the historic lows of the late 1970s and 1980s. And measures of severe hardship like food bank use and homelessness continue to climb. 

Over 400 organizations representing diverse sectors have signed the BC Poverty Reduction Coalition’s call for a plan with legislated targets and timelines. The Union of BC Municipalities, BC’s Chief Medical Health Officer and Child and Youth Advocate, and the Legislature’s own finance committee have also repeatedly advocated for such a plan.

And BC can afford it.

In a province as wealthy as ours (with a surplus over $2 billion) the level of poverty is not only a moral issue, but also an economic one. Our economy loses $8 to $9 billion annually paying for the costs of poverty in the health care and justice systems and in foregone economic activity.

Our report notes that BC’s poverty gap was $5.8 billion in 2014. That’s the amount needed in increased wages and income supports to bring every British Columbian over the poverty line. It is a lot of money, but represents only about 2.4 per cent of BC’s economy. BC has a total annual GDP of about $250 billion. Surely, we can afford to close a poverty gap of less than $6 billion.  

Non-profit groups work hard to improve the lives of the most marginalized in our communities, but charity alone cannot solve poverty. Just as we pool our resources to provide health care and education to all, we must work together to reduce poverty by enhancing public programs and ensuring more employers pay living wages.

Our research shows that social assistance provides an income not just below the poverty line, but thousands of dollars below it. A single person receiving basic welfare, $610 per month, is at less than 40 per cent of the poverty line. And someone working full-time at minimum wage earns about $3,500 a year less than the poverty line. 

Costs for core essentials like rent, childcare, electricity and food have been increasing since the mid 2000s at two to three times the rate of inflation, placing additional stress on the already-tight budgets of low-income families.

It is clear we need a poverty reduction plan that includes not only a revitalized jobs plan, but also higher welfare and disability rates, increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour, and bold investments in areas like housing, childcare and education.

BC needs to join all other Canadian jurisdictions and adopt a comprehensive poverty reduction plan. It’s long overdue. 

Seth Klein is BC Director, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Trish Garner is Community Organizer, BC Poverty Reduction Coalition, and Michael McKnight is President & CEO, United Way of the Lower Mainland.