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Provincial welfare program under strain Add to ...

Just days after B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell launched a national campaign to broaden Canada's employment insurance scheme, new statistics show his provincial welfare program is under growing strain.

And families are bearing the brunt of the recession in B.C., the new provincial statistics on income assistance show.

The number of two-parent families who are collecting provincial welfare assistance has increased by 77 per cent compared to April of last year. There are now 33,000 children in B.C. who are living on welfare rates that have been derided by critics as well below the poverty line.

Last week, Mr. Campbell called for reform of the federal employment insurance program so that B.C. workers don't have to put in more hours than Canadians in other regions to qualify for benefits. He also wants EI benefits extended to two years.

Those workers whose benefits run out for the federal program often end up turning to the provincial welfare program, which pays less.

Bruce Ralston, the New Democratic Party finance critic, said Sunday it is no coincidence the Premier is interested in expanding the federal program right now.

"There is a funding source for EI: You raise premiums," he noted. "Temporary assistance comes out of general revenue. It's not something you can control, you have to spend more at a time when the revenue side is dropping dramatically."

However, Mr. Campbell's proposal last week would see the provinces transfer to Ottawa the amount they would otherwise pay in welfare claims, as a means of cost-sharing a more expensive EI program.

So even if reforms are made, the increase in unemployment in B.C. will make the Campbell government's commitment to keeping the deficit down to $495-million more challenging. Economists and business leaders have warned the deficit will probably come in much higher because the economy is in worse shape than forecast.

By the end of April, B.C. had almost 78,000 clients collecting "temporary" welfare benefits - an increase of 26 per cent compared to April, 2008.

The provincial budget tabled last February does not look like it is set to absorb such an increase. The budget for temporary assistance was $332-million last year and is set to climb to $387-million this year, an increase of 16 per cent.

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