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robert matas

Jagrup Brar, NDP MLA, Surrey-Panorama Ridge.

" I want to experience first hand what life is like being on welfare or in poverty," Surrey-Fleetwood NDP MLA Jagrup Brar told CBC as he announced he will live for one month on $610.

British Columbia has one of the highest rates of child poverty in Canada. Around 70,000 British Columbians use a food bank every month and one-third are children. Social assistance is provided to one in 25 people in the province.

New Democrat Jagrup Brar cited those statistics as he took up a challenge from Raise the Rates, a coalition pressing for hikes in welfare payments. The group asked provincial politicians to live one month on $610, the provincial welfare rate for a single employable person.

Mr. Brar, who is married, a father of two and earns more than $10,000 a month, said he accepted the challenge to experience first hand what 180,000 B.C. families and individuals who are on welfare go through and to come up with proposals to help reduce poverty in B.C.

But concentrating on $610 minimizes the challenges confronting those who turn to social assistance to survive.

Mr. Brar will not go through the qualification process, which requires applicants to use up almost all their savings, exhaust any other means of financial support and go through intensive needs testing that includes a review of all assets, income and basic requirements. He will not have to consider selling his home or car in order to collect the $610.

Mr. Brar will not have to contend with the consequences of some of the toughest rules for social assistance in Canada. Any money earned while on welfare in B.C. must be handed over to the government. A welfare recipient cannot move ahead by taking on part-time work. B.C. claws back every cent.

By comparison, most other provinces allow recipients to keep some of their earnings before reducing assistance.

To qualify for assistance in B.C., a single employable person must have no more than $150 in the bank, which is less than applicants anywhere else in the country except Prince Edward Island, a National Council of Welfare survey shows. In Manitoba, a single employable person was allowed to have as much as $4,000 in liquid assets and still receive welfare, the 2009 survey of rates shows.

Mr. Brar will be living on more money than welfare recipients receive in several other provinces.

Only Saskatchewan, Newfoundland and Ontario are more generous than B.C. in their assistance for single employable persons. Annual rates in 2010 across the country ranged from $9,652 in Newfoundland to a low of $6,637 in Nova Scotia, based on basic assistance, child tax credits and adjustments in some provinces for inflation and heating. B.C. provided $7,824, about midway in the range.

B.C. does even better if only the payment of $610 a month for basic social assistance is considered. The province pays more than Ontario although still trailing Saskatchewan and Newfoundland.

Mr. Brar's experience on $610 will be representative of a small portion of those on welfare. Only about one-seventh of the welfare recipients in B.C. are receiving the minimum $610, according to the ministry of social development.

Higher rates are provided to those with persistent multiple barriers and with disabilities, recognizing they will be on assistance for a longer period of time. The majority of people on welfare receive $906 a month in disability assistance, a ministry official stated.

Despite the limitations, Mr. Brar will no doubt experience some aspects of the lives of some people on social assistance. He has already achieved something by drawing widespread media attention, including Crosscheck, to the plight of the poor.

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