News / Vancouver

'They expect you to live with nothing': B.C. welfare rates lag behind inflation

By not adjusting welfare and disability rates for inflation in 10 years, B.C. will essentially pay $1,345 less to the most vulnerable this year.

B.C. Premier Christy Clark speaks to a Greater Vancouver Board of Trade luncheon audience on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017, a day after her government tabled its final budget before a provincial election.

David P. Ball / Metro

B.C. Premier Christy Clark speaks to a Greater Vancouver Board of Trade luncheon audience on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017, a day after her government tabled its final budget before a provincial election.

Patti, a 51-year-old Abbotsford single mom, recently used up her once-a-month allotment from her local food bank, as well as her once-a-month cash advance from Payday Loan — where she estimates she spends up to $200 on fees and interest every time.

The mother of one, whom Metro agreed to identify by first name only, didn't choose to live like this, she explained. That's because for nearly 25 years she's received provincial disability assistance for a lifelong hip disability and back pain, requiring "37 surgeries," she said.

"It's humiliating," she said. "It's not the way we should be treated. It makes us feel like we're nothing in this world."

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In last week's pre-election budget, the British Columbia government kept its welfare rate the same it has been since 2007 — for a single person, $610 monthly — but upped its disability assistance rate by $50 a month.

"Big whoop-dee-doo," Patti said of the top-up. "What's that going to do? … How are we supposed to pay bills on that by the time we pay rent?

"I went to welfare (office) the other day, they said, 'Your rent portion is only $375.' I said, 'You find me a place where a one-bedroom is going for $375 — even at $900 you're hard pressed to find a place. It's like they want us to live on the streets."

B.C.'s big budget day was also "cheque day" for the roughly 175,000 in the province on assistance, about two-in-five of them on welfare, the rest on disability benefits.

One Vancouver welfare recipient, who asked not to be identified because she feared retaliation, told Metro living on $610 a month has caused her "distress," not only from trying to scrape by, but also jumping through bureaucratic hoops when there's a glitch — as there was for her last Wednesday.

"I spent and hour-and-a-half in a lineup in the cold for my cheque … which, for mysterious reasons, was not direct deposited," she said. "I got all the distress your readers have the stomach for — not just personal involvement but the stories of so many others."

While single disability recipients now get $1,033 a month thanks to what Premier Christy Clark referred to Thursday as a "dividend" because of British Columbians' hard work and success, those on social assistance saw the opposite.

"In the budget, we raised the rates for people on disability by $600 a year, which is the first increase that people on disability have had in quite a few years," Clark told reporters Wednesday. "When it comes to social assistance, though, what I would say is we are trying to help people move from welfare to work.

"… I believe that most people who are on social assistance — not disability assistance, social assistance — want to find their way into a job … There are lots of jobs out there. We want to support people who are currently on welfare finding their way into a job."

But since neither disability or welfare assistance have been pegged to inflation, the steady increase in the cost of a basket of goods over time, to say they've stagnated is an understatement.

By locking the welfare at 2007 rates — $610 monthly, or $7,320 a year — B.C. effectively paid $1,345 less to recipients in today's money because of 1.7 per cent-a-year inflation, according to the Bank of Canada's online calculator tool.

"Most provinces, if they haven't already, are starting to consider inflationary increases to social assistance and disability," said the New Democrats' social development critic Michelle Mungall in a phone interview. "There's no doubt in our mind that leaving people in poverty is just plain wrong.

"For most people who do receive social assistance, it's not permanent — most eventually move on to employment or disability … But what the current rates do is strip people of any dignity and makes it even harder for them to actually do a job search. How do you get enough food so you have a full stomach when you go to a job interview?"

Mungall, who used to operate a food bank in her riding, Nelson, B.C., said that relying on charities simply won't cut it when so many have more demand than supply of food. On Monday, she plans to introduce legislation to lift assistance rates for her sixth time, so far unsuccessfully.

"We all need to get together and get the government to realize we are humans too who don't deserve to live like this," Patti said. "Just because we have disabilities, we have no choice but to live on (Person With Disabilities assistance).

"I'd like to see Christy Clark herself live like this for one whole month, in an apartment rented for what we get a month. How would she manage it?"

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