Twenty-five years after a New Democratic MLA protested against a low welfare rate by living on it for one month – a campaign that saw him shed more than 30 pounds – another NDP member of the legislative assembly has vowed to follow in his footsteps.
Jagrup Brar, MLA for Surrey-Fleetwood, announced Monday that he’ll live on the single-person welfare rate of $610 for one month, starting Jan. 1. Mr. Brar said he’s been thinking about the challenge since he was approached by a welfare advocacy group in May and was unsure until his 11-year-old daughter encouraged him to “do it and make a difference.”
“Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to meet with social activists to discuss the issues tied to poverty and income assistance,” said Mr. Brar, who was first elected in 2004. “The cost of poverty, both socially and economically, is a detriment to our society and I want to get at that through this experience.”
Emery Barnes was MLA for Vancouver Centre in 1986 when he accepted a challenge to live on a fixed income in the city’s poverty-stricken Downtown Eastside. Constance Barnes, his daughter, said her since-deceased father spoke often about that month.
“He was frustrated that welfare rates kept people in poverty so he demonstrated in a very honest way that you can’t have a healthy life on welfare,” she said. “As sad as it is, not much has changed in 25 years. I am thrilled to see another strong voice step up to the plate and courageously fight this battle.”
The $610 Mr. Brar will receive is being provided by anti-poverty group Raise the Rates. The group is calling on the province to dramatically raise single-person income assistance to about $1,300 a month. Raise the Rates says it chose $1,300 because that’s the market basket measure the federal government has said a person needs to have a reasonable life.
Mr. Brar will spend part of his time living in Surrey, part in Vancouver. Details are still being finalized, but the $610 will have to cover housing, food, transit, phone, hygiene and other expenses.
Mr. Brar said he’ll spend the month meeting with people who live in poverty and on welfare and listen to their stories.
“I have chosen this path believing that through this challenge I can gain a stronger understanding of the underlying causes of poverty and how poverty affects the lives of the people around us,” he said.
Mr. Brar said his wife has expressed concerns about his health. Raise the Rates has told him that he’s permitted to go home once a week, though he hasn’t decided whether he will do so.
In addition to a bump in the welfare rate, Mr. Brar said he’d like to see the province reinstate single-person earning exemptions. Without the exemptions, he said, single people who earn any money have that amount later taken off their welfare cheque, taking away incentive to work.
Stephanie Cadieux, the province’s Social Development minister, which oversees income assistance, said the province has no plans to raise the welfare rate or implement the exemptions.
Ms. Cadieux said B.C. has the third-highest income assistance rates in Canada for single people who are able to work.