A call for accountability at the Ministry of Employment and Income Assistance

April 18, 2006

The government has now been decisively called to account for its harmful policy choices at the Ministry of Children and Families. Justice Ted Hughes confirms that BC’s child protection system has been “stretched beyond limits.” Thankfully, with the release of Hughes’ review last week, vital reforms should be on the way.

It is now time to turn equal attention towards another ministry responsible for vulnerable people — The Ministry of Employment and Income Assistance, which oversees welfare.

The similarities between the government’s handling MCFD and MEIA are striking. Hughes found that the budget cuts at MCFD “took the knife too far.” The budget cuts at MEIA (then called the Ministry of Human Resources) went ever further (in 2002, a 30 per cent budget cut over three years was announced, and the actual cut was even deeper). Both ministries have been subjected to sweeping policy changes. And at both Ministries, these changes were made without putting in place any measures to monitor or evaluate their impacts.

The Hughes review occurred because many courageous advocates and family members refused to be silent, the Opposition and the media took up their call, and the government was left with no choice but to subject its record to independent scrutiny, and — hopefully — to rethink its policy choices and acknowledge past mistakes.

But advocates, community service organizations across the province, and the BC Association of Social Workers have been consistently sounding a similar alarm with respect to people needing social assistance. And a growing chorus of community groups has been calling for an increase in the paltry benefit rates those on welfare receive.

Last month, we published a study called Denied Assistance: Closing the Front Door on Welfare in BC. The study sought to find out what has driven the dramatic decline in the number of people receiving social assistance in recent years, and to examine what has happened to some of those denied help.

According to the government, the number of people successfully applying for welfare has plummeted because people are being “diverted to employment”. The fact of the matter is, the government no idea what has happened to people who are turned away. It has never done a study that follows up with those who are denied or discouraged from applying for welfare. It has no measures whatsoever to account for their wellbeing or safety, let alone to know whether they have in fact found employment.

The study found that only about half the recent drop in the number of people on welfare can be explained by the improved labour market. The balance was due to the government’s policy changes, mainly changes that made it much harder to access welfare.

Among the study’s key findings:

  • BC’s welfare eligibility rules and the application process have become so onerous and complicated to navigate that they are systematically excluding some of the very people most in need of help. Many of them are not employable. Too often, the more vulnerable a person is –– such as those with mental health issues or addictions –– the more difficulty they have accessing the system.
  • Some people are being “diverted to employment” (as the government presumes). But too many are instead being diverted to homelessness, charities, survival sex and desperation. Some are living on virtually no income. The truth of this is evident on the streets to anyone with eyes to see, and is supported by all the recent local studies into rising homelessness (and not just in Vancouver).
  • People in need who are eligible for welfare are frequently unable to get it without the help of a knowledgeable advocate (and funding cuts mean there are fewer of such people, just as the need has grown).

The response to the study from Minister Claude Richmond was fundamentally unacceptable and inappropriate. The Minister dismissed the study as “the same report that comes out every year. It’s got a different cover.” Not so. This was the first study to undertake an in-depth evaluation of the new eligibility rules and application system. It conducted interviews with unsuccessful applicants, welfare advocates, and Ministry workers. And it drew on Freedom of Information data that the Ministry had never before released, and in some cases, that none of the recent Ministers responsible had ever cared to ask for. The Minister needs to stop attacking the messengers and accept responsibility.

BC’s welfare application system is not working. The Hughes report has shown the undeniable benefits of an independent review. It’s time MEIA was held to account.

Bruce Wallace is Research Coordinator with the Vancouver Island Public Interest Research Group. Seth Klein is BC Director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Marge Reitsma-Street is Professor in Studies in Policy and Practice at the University of Victoria. Their study, Denied Assistance: Closing the Front Door on Welfare in BC, is available at: www.policyalternatives.ca