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B.C. welfare rates labelled cruel and punitive by watchdog group

Assisted incomes fall far below poverty line, National Council of Welfare says B.C. welfare rates fell by as much as 6.2 per cent between 2002 and 2003, resulting in income levels the National Council of Welfare called "cruel and punitive" in a report released Wednesday.

The council, which is a citizens' advisory body to the federal minister of social development, said between 2002 and 2003 rates fell by 2.1 per cent for a single disabled person and by 6.2 per cent for a couple with two children.

In dollars that translated to an income of $9,812 for the disabled person, or 50 per cent below the poverty line as defined by Statistics Canada, and $18,086 a year for the couple with two children, or 51 per cent below the poverty line.

A single employable person received $6,445 a year, 67 per cent below the poverty line, and a single parent with one child received $13,673, 45 per cent below the poverty line, after annual drops of 3.1 per cent and 4.6 per cent respectively.

The council also reported that since 1989, welfare rates, adjusted for inflation, have fallen 19.4 per cent for single employable people, 7.6 per cent for people with disabilities, 29.7 per cent for single parents with children, and 33.7 per cent for couples with children. "It speaks to the fact that welfare rates, even in absolute dollars, have not been going up for a very long time," said Seth Klein, B.C. director for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. "And when you factor in the cost of living, people are falling farther and farther below the poverty line." B.C.

Minister of Human Resources Stan Hagen was travelling Wednesday and not available to comment, but ministry spokesman Richard Chambers said it was difficult to establish an accurate poverty line because criteria often differ between agencies. Nonetheless, he said B.C. welfare rates are "above average" compared to those in other provinces. "When it comes to income assistance, the practice is that it [income assistance] provides money for shelter and for support," Chambers said. "When it comes to disability assistance, that's the highest rate of assistance we offer in B.C." But Klein says it's impossible for anyone in the province to survive on welfare as it exists now. "A single employable person gets $510 a month," Klein said. "$325 is for shelter.

That leaves $185 a month, or $6 a day to pay for everything else: food, clothing, transport and a job search. "You can't do it. It can't be done. People wonder why there's an increase in panhandling. It's because you cannot live on a welfare income." The council report also singled out B.C.'s practice of putting limits on how long people may collect welfare. "The council is still horrified by the decision," it wrote, noting that employable people without children may have their benefits terminated after they have been on welfare for a total of two years in any five-year period, and families with children may have their benefits reduced after a total of two years in any five-year period.

The council said that while recent amendments to the plan should limit its impact to a relatively small number of people, the policy still "sets a dangerous precedent" and underscores the need for minimum national standards for welfare.

But Chambers said changes announced by the ministry in February allow for up to 25 exemptions to that rule, and that "since we had this policy, no person has lost his income assistance as a result of the time-limit policy." "As long as you're following the employment plan you've established with your case worker, you will continue to receive it [income assistance]," he said. The report also was critical of most of the other provinces, which "claw back" increases in the federal government's National Child Benefit from welfare recipients.

The clawback is why welfare incomes for families have decreased in most cases since Ottawa introduced the benefit and despite repeated increases in the program, it said. And it blames Ottawa for allowing the provinces to offset increases in the child benefit with cuts in welfare from parents "unlucky enough to be forced to depend on welfare." Only Newfoundland and New Brunswick have not taken advantage of the federal child benefit to cut their welfare rates, although Nova Scotia, Quebec, Manitoba and Alberta recently limited the clawback. "This is progress, but seven provinces and territories still plan to take the money from the already painfully low welfare payments these families rely on," the council said.

The council rejected what it says is the argument of some provinces that clawing back part of the child benefit from welfare families creates an incentive for them to work. "It makes sense to provide incentives to work, but we do not believe taking money away from people on welfare is an acceptable approach," it says. "No one should be forced to live on incomes as low as the incomes we identify in this report. "Incomes must be at levels high enough to maintain people's health and dignity," it says, arguing that otherwise they can't be expected to take the training or hunt for a job.