The ticking time bomb of BC's welfare time limits

October 1, 2003

Of all the changes the BC government has made to social assistance, the most radical is the introduction of welfare time limits. The rule kicked-in April 1, 2002, and limits "employable" people without children to only two years of social assistance during any five year period. Once they hit the two-year limit, they will be completely cut off assistance. Employable people with children over three-years-old will not be cut off, but will lose $100 per month from a support payment that is already far below the poverty line, making it virtually impossible to make ends meet.

BC is the first province in Canada to introduce welfare time limits. Time limits are an import from the United States, where a five-year lifetime limit was implemented federally in 1996. BC's move represents a fundamental shift in Canadian social policy--a denial of welfare when in need as a basic human right. As such, the eyes of the country are on us, and if allowed to take root in BC, this new policy will likely domino through provinces eager to follow BC's lead.

But before we allow this to happen, what are the risks?

The BC government says not to worry. A look south of the border, however, offers cause for concern. Only recently have the first U.S. families hit their lifetime limits. So far, the impact has been muted for two reasons: First, the introduction of U.S. time limits coincided with a period of unprecedented economic growth and job creation (a circumstance that is certainly not true of present-day BC). Second, built into the U.S. legislation were a host of exceptions, allowing states to exempt up to 20 percent of welfare recipients from the rule. As the first families have hit their time limits, most states have invoked these exceptions in order to avoid the unseemly task of throwing poor families onto the street.

A few U.S. states, however, decided to bring in time limits of less than five years, and they provide early, troubling evidence of what we might expect in BC. Studies from these states found that people who were forced off welfare due to hitting their time limits faced greater hardship than those who left welfare voluntarily. They were more likely to rely on food stamps. They were more likely to be evicted from their homes. And they had lower incomes.

Moreover, the latest statistics from the Urban Institute's National Survey of America's Families indicate that, in 2002, only 42% of former welfare recipients were employed, a drop from 50% in 1999. In other words, as time limits and other welfare reforms combine with a weaker economy, more people are finding themselves with no source of income.

BC's policy of welfare time limits will result in similar hardships. And deeply troubling, a Freedom of Information (FOI) request by CBC radio news revealed in July that the BC Ministry of Human Resources was well aware of the risks, but chose to proceed regardless. Internal briefing papers unearthed by the CBC FOI indicate that the Ministry understood--but chose to ignore--the following:

That some people who will likely hit their time limits face "invisible barriers" to employment, even though they may be officially categorized as "employable." For example, they may have social, mental or addiction problems that are unrecognized by the Ministry.

That in the U.S., those who hit their time limits still had access to non-cash assistance, such as food stamps, while in BC those cut off will lose all benefits.

That after welfare reforms were implemented, U.S. governments actually increased spending on programs for low-income people. As welfare caseloads decreased (largely due to economic growth), money was redirected into expanded child care services, training and education, and transportation assistance. Of course the BC government is doing nothing of the sort--it is cutting all these other programs.

The recurring theme is that BC has selectively imported the U.S. policy sticks--like time limits--but taken a pass on the supports. All told, the CBC FOI exposes the fact that cost-cutting, not support for those in need, is driving the changes to social assistance in BC.

The first BC individuals and families will hit their time limits on April 1, 2004. At first, this will affect few households, since most people do not stay on welfare for two consecutive years. But with each passing month, more people will hit their limit, and will either be kicked off assistance or lose $100 per month. In the past few months, the BC government has finally started to indicate that some people will be exempted from the rule (for example, during months in which they participate in training or addiction programs). However, many will still, in time, hit the wall.

So the welfare time limits must go. If not, their combination with other punitive changes and an economic downturn will create a toxic policy mix. In their place, the government should recognize that welfare when a person is in need is a basic right. It should provide individualized support, invest in people's long-term needs and aspirations, and emphasize job creation, not personal blame.

Seth Klein is the BC Director of the Canadian centre for Policy Alternatives.