B.C. Views – Making progress on poverty

Columnist Tom Fletcher applauds the government's recent moves to address the needs of those on welfare.

VICTORIA – The B.C. government has made its most significant moves in decades to address the needs of some of the province’s poorest people.

The largest financial commitment is for a new program to help single parents escape from the welfare trap. There are 16,000 single parents in B.C. receiving provincial income assistance or disability payments, most of them women.

Even if they could find an entry-level job, it wouldn’t pay enough to cover the child care they would need to go to work. Worst of all, the current system requires that if they enrol in training, they lose their income assistance, including dental and extended medical care for themselves and their children.

That is the welfare trap, one of the most perverse government policies to have survived into our supposedly enlightened modern era.

The new program takes effect in September. It will not only continue income assistance payments when single parents enrol in skills training, it promises to cover their child care and transportation costs for an approved training program of up to one year.

Medical and child care costs will then be covered for up to a year after training, to allow a transition to employment.

Approved training means training for jobs that are identified as in demand, requiring high school and occupation-specific training that can be completed in a year or less. They include retail sales, general office work and assistance jobs in health services.

Another overdue policy change is to double the allowable earnings for all income assistance recipients from $200 to $400 a month. This gives people a chance to improve their circumstances by taking whatever part-time or casual work they can manage, without having that little income cut from their already meagre welfare cheques.

And then there was the recent decision to end the claw-back of parental child support payments from income assistance payments.

The province has for many years run a costly child maintenance enforcement program to track down (mostly) deadbeat dads and force them to pay at least a token amount to support their children. Now when they pay child support to a single parent on income assistance, they will at least have the satisfaction of knowing the children actually receive the extra benefit.

These harsh, historic policies were built around a philosophy that welfare is a temporary last resort, to be withdrawn as soon as some other source of income is identified. That is a valid if unfashionable position to take on behalf of working taxpayers who pay for all this, but it only makes sense if the income assistance recipient has a realistic option.

For those who are already in the entry-level job market, the minimum wage goes up 20 cents an hour in September, from $10.25 to $10.45. This is the beginning of an annual review that will tie the wage to the consumer price index.

A paltry sum, to be sure, but anyone who still thinks jacking the minimum wage up to $15 an hour is a magic solution that won’t cost some entry-level jobs is clinging to a socialist dream world.

• I have been contacted by several low-income seniors who read my recent column on B.C.’s Seniors’ Advocate. They were asking where to find out if they are eligible for support programs such as the SAFER rent subsidy, assistance for Medical Services Plan premiums, property tax deferment and grants to help with home modifications for disabilities.

I apologize for this oversight. One place to start is the Seniors’ Advocate toll-free information line, 1-877-952-3181, weekdays 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Tom Fletcher is legislature reporter and columnist for Black Press.

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