We hear a lot here at the B.C. legislature about hard-hearted government treatment of the poor.
It’s a serious problem, and one often obscured by the partisan Punch-and-Judy show that passes for political debate in this province.
As things stand, Premier Christy Clark’s government is heading into an election year with a basic income assistance rate for single employable adults at $610 a month, unchanged since the last miserly increase in 2007. Couples on assistance get up to $877.22, or up to $1,101.06 if they have two children.
If those children are aged three or more, parents are required to look for work and file monthly reports that show they still need income assistance.
The B.C. Liberals’ February budget left the basic rates and rules the same, with new applicants required to look for work for five weeks before getting a first cheque. There are sound reasons for this hard line, and despite their frequent demands for more, no one should understand them better than the B.C. NDP.
Mike Harcourt’s NDP government raised rates in 1991, and also eased eligibility rules to let people stay on assistance longer. Within two years, B.C.’s welfare rolls were nearly 10 per cent of the working-age population and climbing.
Harcourt famously denounced the “cheats, deadbeats and varmints” gaming the system, rolled the single employable rate back to $500 a month and imposed some of the harsh eligibility and job search rules that remain today. The caseload of single employable recipients declined by a third.
The current B.C. Liberal government did approve a $77 increase to the $906 disability income assistance rate, to take effect this September. Mostly what they got was protests about implementing a $52 monthly charge for transit passes.
Social Development Minister Michelle Stilwell rejected opposition claims that transit passes are being cancelled. There are 45,000 disability clients who don’t have access to transit, and they receive nothing for their transportation costs. If those who can use them want to continue, the cost comes out of their rate increase.
A protest was organized for the legislature lawn March 2, featuring disability activists and NDP politicians. As I arrived, Hospital Employees’ Union members were posing for pictures with New Westminster MLA Judy Darcy, a former HEU business manager. Others in HEU T-shirts were leading developmentally disabled people up to the small crowd.
All typical B.C. political theatre, with the union’s role omitted from news reports as usual. But I had to wonder about the NDP demand for taxpayers to top up the $170 million disability assistance budget increase with another $35 million a year, to provide bus passes to those lucky enough to be able to use them.
Most people on disability assistance aren’t commuting to work daily. If they were, they would likely no longer be eligible. If they are able to use transit, it’s mainly for shopping, medical appointments and social activities.
When the change takes effect this fall, I intend to find out how many people decide to take the $77 increase and pay for transit only when they need it. I suspect there will be many.
Faith Bodnar of the activist group Inclusion BC summed it up well when she spoke to the rally.
“Government, all you did was equalize poverty for people with disabilities in B.C.,” she said.
Note that Bodnar wasn’t calling for the NDP position of a further increase that only urban people could use. She was saying the rate still isn’t high enough.
That’s the real issue.
Tom Fletcher is B.C. legislature reporter and columnist for Black Press.