Welfare Changes Help and Hurt BC’s Most Vulnerable

It’s been five years, but the provincial government continues to refuse to raise welfare rates. Changes announced today by Premier Christy Clark will help some welfare recipients and hurt the most vulnerable of all – those who have difficultly getting the benefits in the first place. New applicants will now have to wait five weeks from the time they apply until they receive benefits.

The work search period was first introduced in 2002, and until now has been a three week period. Making people wait five weeks to receive welfare benefits assumes that all applicants are able to work and have the necessary items to complete a work search, such as appropriate clothing and a phone number. Individuals have to give up most of their assets before receiving welfare, and have often been out of work for some time before applying. A 2006 study by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives found “considerable evidence” that the three week wait diverted applicants away from the welfare system and into further poverty rather than into employment. Welfare is meant to be a system of last resort, and expecting applicants to wait five weeks to receive assistance is cruel and unreasonable.

All welfare recipients who are expected to work will now be eligible for a $200 earnings exemption each month, and the earnings exemption for people with disabilities will go up to $800 from $500 a month. However, the impact of this benefit is limited – currently only 15% of people with disabilities claim an earnings exemption in any given month.

Raise the Rates has been calling for a reinstatement of the earnings exemption for recipients who are expected to work since it was removed in 2002. This will help those recipients who are able to work stay connected to the work force and pay some of the basic living expenses that are not adequately met by the basic welfare rate of $610 a month for a single employable person.

A number of changes will come into effect for families on welfare. These include marginal increases to the school start up supplement and family bonus top-up, access to dental services for children for those on hardship assistance, and the allowance of up to $4000 in assets. Parents without legal status in Canada who are fleeing abuse and cannot leave the country with their children will now be eligible for assistance.

Additionally, all income assistance recipients will be required to file tax returns, and any income tax refunds will be exempted from Ministry clawbacks.

The changes announced today are a case of one step forward, two steps back – while we applaud the changes to earnings exemptions, allowable assets, and topped-up support for families, we are concerned that the five week wait to qualify for benefits and the requirement to file a tax return will result in the most vulnerable members of our society never receiving or being kicked off of welfare.

Ultimately, a real investment in the welfare system is needed, rather than fiddling around with existing rules. Raise the Rates’ demands are:

  • Increase income assistance rates to the Market Basket Measure ($1300 a month for a single person inVancouver) and index them to inflation.
  • Remove the arbitrary barriers that keep people in need from receiving income assistance, including the 2-year independence test, the 5-week work search, and restrictions based on citizenship status.
  • Increase the minimum wage to $12/hour and index it to inflation.
  • Build at least 2000 units of affordable non-market housing per year in addition to supportive housing, assisted living units and shelter beds.
  • Increase the tax rate on people who earn over $250,000 a year and reverse the tax cuts to corporations.