Monday, January 19, 2009

Change of heart on BC welfare may be too little, too late

When Gordon Campbell’s Liberals were first elected in 2001, almost a quarter million British Columbians were living on welfare. Those numbers have fallen by almost 100,000 since then.
Good news or bad? That’s a profound question. The tremendous drop in B.C. welfare rates over the past 14 years is either a marvel of social strategy or a major reason why we’ve ended up with so many people living on our streets. So it’s not the kind of thing you want to get wrong.
The government’s own vision for its welfare programs establishes what we’re shooting for in the province: “Government is committed to helping those most in need and helping people who are able to work achieve sustainable employment.” Are we achieving that vision?
First, a brief welfare primer for B.C. newcomers. Welfare rates hit an historic high in 1995, with 367,387 British Columbians on assistance - 10 per cent of the population. An embarrassed New Democrat government promised a crackdown, and by the late 1990s had adopted a new “tough love” qualification process and welfare-to-work program that continues to this day.
By the time the Liberals took office, the NDP had reduced the number of welfare clients (which includes the children of people on welfare) to 245,000, six per cent of the population. The Liberals have since cut it further, to three per cent: 146,152. Subtract the people with permanent disabilities from that tally, and it turns out that less than one per cent of the population now receives temporary assistance.
Welfare is a mean existence. The money’s just enough to stay poor forever - $610 a month for a single person on temporary assistance, and only for those with a place to live ($235 otherwise). But it’s better than nothing, and a vital component of smart social planning.
Most of the reduction in client numbers was made during the Liberals’ first term in office, when their enthusiasm for slashing social programs knew no bounds. The party’s second term has been significantly different, at least in the last couple of years. Perhaps they just woke up and smelled the coffee, but at any rate the welfare caseload bottomed out in 2007 and has been rising ever so slowly ever since.
For the first time since 1995, the number of people qualifying for welfare is increasing rather than decreasing. This past year, the client load grew by more than 10,000 people.
The government has even begun to hire outreach workers to hit the streets specifically to find people who aren’t on welfare and sign them up - unthinkable in the Liberals’ early years. Welfare rates inched up a little. It could be the Liberals have come to see what many of us had already concluded: that the government had gone too far with its cuts to welfare.
Trying to measure government performance is a challenging task if only because the goal posts keep changing, and rarely more so than in the Ministry of Housing and Social Development, where the welfare program resides. The name of the ministry alone has changed three times since the Liberals took office, and trying to draw comparisons between then and now is a bit like comparing the fabled apple to the orange.
But two long-term trends clearly visible through the haze are an increase in the number of people receiving disability assistance, and a dramatic drop in those receiving temporary assistance.
The number of people receiving disability has almost tripled since 1995, to 81,000 from a low of 26,708. Disability provides a little bigger stipend than regular welfare and includes a cheap annual bus pass, so I’ll take the increase as a positive sign that more people who really need the help are now getting it.
At the same time, however, the number of British Columbians receiving temporary assistance has fallen by more than 80 per cent, from 340,679 to a mere 64,754.
Some people have found jobs through B.C.’s welfare training programs, of course, and others deserved to get dumped from the dole. But many more simply crashed through the gaping holes that developed in the system. In terms of cost-effectiveness, Andrew MacLeod reported in the Tyee in 2005 that we’d spent $31 million on welfare-to-work programs in the Liberals’ first term to save $18 million in welfare payments.
Good on the Liberals for trying harder these past couple years. But the suffering they inflicted to get to this point has been considerable. People lost housing, hope and dignity during the worst of the cutbacks, and problems on our streets skyrocketed.
I’ll be looking for smarter, better-informed welfare policy from the next B.C. government.

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