BC's welfare recipients need immediate relief

April 24, 2012

Two recent events highlight the need for emergency relief for BC welfare recipients, and make clear that people simply cannot meet basic needs on a welfare income.

The first event was in January, when NDP MLA Jagrup Brar spent a month living on $610, the basic welfare income for a single person.  He lost 26 pounds, wound up $7 in debt and had to sell his backpack to pay for a Skytrain ride home to Surrey.

The second was the publication of the report from BC members of the Dietitians of Canada comparing the cost of a nutritious basket of food to the support allowance available to welfare recipients.  Every one of the five welfare family types studied in the report would have been in the red after paying for food and shelter.  Their welfare budgets didn’t allow even one cent for a tube of toothpaste, a bus ticket or a new pair of socks.

The revelations from Brar and the dietitians’ report shocked many British Columbians, but were not news to government, welfare recipients and anti-poverty advocates. Over the years, successive governments have ignored the clear inadequacy of welfare rates, ensuring the deepening poverty of some of the province’s poorest residents.

Our welfare system needs a thorough overhaul, but it also needs an immediate increase in benefits. At a minimum, we propose an immediate increase of $200 a month for a single person, $300 a month for couples without children, and $400 a month for families with children. 

If you question the benefit of increasing the rates, consider the costs and consequences documented in Brar’s experience and the dietitians’ report.

Brar spent part of his month on welfare living in an 11-by-11-foot hovel in a Single Room Occupancy hotel.  He had a chair, table, mattress, sink, stove, a fridge that didn’t work, and a bathroom he shared with 11 other men.

Brar’s welfare budget was $610.  Assuming he could have rented an SRO for $375 a month, he had $235 left for food and all other expenses.  The dietitians said a nutritious diet for the month would cost $244.  That meant Brar would have been $9 in the hole without having any funds necessary to look for work, or to pay for anything else.

In their report, the dietitians developed budgets for different family and household types that included the cost of food, shelter and basic telephone service.  They included in income the amounts paid by BC welfare, and other government benefits such as the Canada Child Tax Benefit for families with children and the federal GST credit.

Each of the five family types on welfare did not have enough money to cover the total cost of food and shelter. The family with two adults and two children had a deficit of $124 a month or $1,488 a year.

They would have had to cut back on food or shelter to the tune of $124 a month, and they would have been unable to buy anything else such as non-prescription medications, soap, cleaning supplies, toys, clothing, transportation — goods and services all of us would consider essential for daily living.

The dietitians’ report concurs with years of studies on the costs we bear when we make it impossible for people to eat properly.  They include unhealthy babies, poor growth and development in children, learning deficits, increased illness and decreased life expectancy.

As of January 2012, there were 135,714 “cases” on the BC welfare rolls. Nearly 81% were single people, 3% were couples without children, 14% were single parents with children, and 3% were couples with children.  Only 25% of the caseloads fell into the province’s “expected to work” classification.

The cost of providing an additional $200, $300 or $400 a month would be approximately $383 million a year, a significant amount of money, but not impossible to find. 

In a society where income inequality has become a major issue, it would certainly be appropriate to consider taxing wealthier British Columbians to assist the very poorest.

That brings us back to politics and the stated willingness of BC politicians to meet the needs of poor people.

We need more than promises of action down the road. What we need from BC’s political parties is a commitment to emergency help right away, followed by an early start on a full review of welfare policies and rates. The ultimate goal should be a system for setting welfare rates that is tied to the real costs of basic living expenses in order to promote health and human dignity.

Adrienne Montani is Provincial Coordinator of First Call: BC Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition; Seth Klein is BC Director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives; Lorraine Copas is Executive Director of the Social Planning and Research Council of BC.