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Advocates say NDP’s increase to social assistance ‘still not enough’

John Horgan stands on stage after being sworn in by B.C. Lieutenant Gover­nor Judith Guichon at Government House in Victoria, B.C., on July 18, 2017.


British Columbia's new NDP government has followed through on an election promise to raise social-assistance and disability rates by $100 a month, but advocates say more than a modest increase is needed to address poverty and homelessness in the province.

"I hope this is only a start – just the first step to a more thorough review of welfare and disability-assistance rates so that there is some relationship to the actual cost of living," Adrienne Montani, provincial co-ordinator of the First Call BC Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition, said on Thursday.

"Because this is still not enough," Ms. Montani added.

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First Call and other advocacy groups have for years called for increases to social-assistance rates, which had not been raised since 2007 under the former Liberal government.

The NDP platform included a commitment to "immediately" raise all income and assistance rates by $100 a month.

Premier John Horgan said rates would increase, beginning in September.

New monthly rates will be $1,133 for a person receiving disability and $710 for a person on income assistance.

The Ottawa-based Caledon Institute of Social Policy, which tracks welfare rates across the country, has found rates in British Columbia to be at the low end of the scale.

Welfare incomes for single employable recipients and single persons with disabilities in B.C. "show a significant slide starting in 1995," Caledon said in its report Welfare in Canada, 2015, which was released in November of last year.

Welfare incomes for single employable households ranged from 38.2 per cent of the after-tax poverty line in Alberta to a high of 64.9 per cent in Newfoundland and Labrador, with most other jurisdictions – including B.C. – clustered around the lower rate, Caledon said.

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Finance Minister Carole James says the increase in income assistance will cost $104-million for the coming fiscal year and $182-million a year on a continuing basis. The first figure reflects the fact that the commitment has come in the middle of this fiscal year, which began on April 1.

Ms. James, also Deputy Premier, said the NDP government sees this step as affordable given the surplus and contingency allowances.

"We can't afford not to do it for people who haven't seen an increase," she said in an interview on Thursday. "British Columbia has been so far behind other provinces, particularly in the area of income assistance."

Ms. James said the increase is only a first step in advance of a poverty-reduction plan the NDP wants to develop in consultation with stakeholders.

"It will be a more robust discussion with people in the field who understand this issue. There will be an opportunity for people to give their feedback. It will be a longer-term process," Ms. James said.

First Call's Ms. Montani said she hoped the poverty-reduction plan could be developed quickly, saying First Call and other groups have already developed detailed proposals and budget submissions.

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People on assistance receive part of their income – a maximum of $375 a month for a single person – as a shelter allowance and the remainder as support.

The new increases will go to the support payments, Ms. James said, rather than shelter – lessening the possibility that the increase will be swallowed up by rent increases. Shelter allowances, she said, are not being adjusted. "We want to ensure this goes directly to clients."

Other advocates praised the increase, while calling for additional action. Stephen Portman, advocacy lead for Together Against Poverty Society, in a statement called on the new government to consider other measures, including improved medical and dental benefits.

The Liberal government had previously rejected calls to increase social-assistance rates, instead arguing that its jobs plan would ensure people were able to make ends meet. The Liberal government reversed course after the election, including a promise to increase rates in its final Throne Speech. The speech was voted down, allowing the NDP to form government with the support of the Greens.

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