The following op-ed was originally published in The Georgia Straight.
On June 16, I attended the B.C. government’s Disability Summit, the culmination of a three-month public consultation process on disability in B.C.
I watched Minister of Social Development and Social Innovation Don McRae lead the audience through the event. I felt the flurry of excitement as Premier Christy Clark took to the stage to launch the government’s new action plan, Accessibility 2024, and then watched as she left as quickly as she had arrived. I heard business leaders talk about the benefits of meaningful inclusion. And I saw cameras and reporters focused on the front while the most important message came from protestors on the outside.
Echoing the submissions from hundreds of community members throughout B.C., primarily individuals with disabilities, advocacy groups, and service organizations, the rally featured B.C. ACORN, the Single Mothers Alliance of B.C., and others emphasizing the importance of tackling the high rates of poverty among people with disabilities.
There are some good things about the government’s plan. First and foremost, it is actually a plan with goals, targets, and timelines, a lead minister and cross-ministerial committee, and an annual report to provide accountability—what a novel idea for tackling a fundamental social issue, an approach that we’ve been pushing for years!
Within the plan, income support is noted as a fundamental building block, a small recognition of the issue from the government. However, there is no concrete commitment to raise disability benefits, which have been frozen since 2007. That the government commits merely to “consider” the issue “as the fiscal situation allows” is little comfort for people with disabilities who cannot meet their basic needs on the current $906 each month. How can the government achieve the ultimate goals of the plan to make B.C. the most “accessible” and “progressive” province in Canada without addressing the deep poverty faced by so many people with disabilities?
The central “solution” in the government’s action plan is jobs. The little money dedicated to this initiative is all directed to employment inclusion and skills training. It’s not surprising. It’s the same answer we receive when our supporters throughout the province advocate for a poverty reduction plan for B.C.
There are two important points to make in response. First, many people with disabilities are unable to work but they still deserve to live with dignity. Second, most people in poverty already have a job so low wage employment does not provide meaningful inclusion for anyone. The emphasis must be on good, stable jobs that provide a living wage.
While the Disability Summit was a high-profile publicity event for the government, a month before that, they quietly released a progress report on their “community poverty reduction pilot projects”. No big fanfare for the initiative launched in May 2012, which has helped only 72 families over two years, a drop in the ocean when you consider that almost 500,000 people live in poverty in B.C.
And, by help, they mean merely referring families to existing services. The assumption is that the fundamental problem for families in poverty is an inability to navigate the system of programs, services, and supports within their communities. While there are many bureaucratic barriers that do require a certain level of language and literacy, the fundamental problem is lack of income combined with high cost of living—not a failure to access services.
Despite recognizing that the provincial government is responsible for the implementation, support, and funding of the systemic themes identified during these pilot projects, including housing, food security, health, childcare, transportation, and education, this so-called poverty reduction project does nothing to address those issues.
Instead, one of the actions has been to set up a food bank in Stewart. Since when did government get into the food bank business? Food banks fill the gap that government leaves, an ever-widening gap at this rate.
Within all this disappointment is a small ray of sunshine that has the potential to turn this province around if supported by both parties. On May 6, Opposition MLA Michelle Mungall introduced a member’s bill, the Poverty Reduction and Economic Inclusion Act. Since then, the premier has received hundreds of emails and letters from organizations throughout B.C. asking her to support the proposed act.
B.C. has had the highest poverty rate in Canada for the last 13 years and is now one of only two provinces without a poverty reduction plan. Bill M 212 includes government responsibility, targets and timelines, and strong accountability measures—features that are critical to the success of any plan, as the government has recognized in its disability action plan. However, a comprehensive poverty reduction plan would have much more impact and truly make B.C. the most “progressive” province in Canada with no one left behind.
I’d like to see some fanfare about that!