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MLA frets ahead of month-long welfare experiment

While most British Columbians were lamenting their holiday weight gain, Jagrup Brar was hoping to tack on a few extra pounds. The New Democratic MLA figured he might need them.

Mr. Brar, member of the legislative assembly for Surrey-Fleetwood, will Sunday begin a month-long challenge to live on the single-person welfare rate of $610. Mr. Brar, a 52-year-old father of two, accepted the challenge from anti-poverty group Raise the Rates to better understand what life on income assistance in B.C. is like.

The thrice-elected politician is following in the footsteps of another NDP MLA. In 1986, Vancouver Centre representative Emery Barnes agreed to live on a fixed income in the city's poverty-stricken Downtown Eastside. Mr. Barnes shed more than 30 pounds during that month.

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Mr. Brar spent the holiday season preparing for the journey ahead. He meditated to calm his nerves. He visited the grocery store to get a sense of what he'll be able to afford, with noodles near the top of the list. And he spent time with his children, 12-year-old daughter Noor and four-year-old son Fateh, knowing that's a luxury he'll miss when he's living in a shelter or single-room occupancy hotel.

"Living in poverty is hard and demoralizing," he said in an interview. "It's not an exciting time for me as I get closer to the start date. Sometimes I fear about my health and safety. Sometimes I also question myself, whether I will be able to go through with it or not."

But Mr. Brar said when he thinks about how many people in B.C. live on welfare or in poverty, he becomes more and more committed to the path he's chosen.

About 180,000 B.C. residents are on welfare. The province raised the single-person monthly rate in 2007, from $510 to $610. Of the $610, $375 is earmarked for shelter while the remaining $235 is for all other expenses. Raise the Rates says it would take about $1,300 a month to meet the market basket measure for a reasonable life.

Mr. Brar, like all the province's MLAs, was approached by the anti-poverty group in May. He was the only one to accept, doing so in November. He said the final word came from his daughter, who urged him to "do it and make a difference."

He's been checked out by his doctor and has been told he's in good shape, though he's still waiting on results from one final blood test. The checkups haven't been enough to alleviate wife Rajwant's concerns, Mr. Brar admits.

His first task when he hits the streets Jan. 1 will be finding a place to stay. He plans to visit a Surrey shelter immediately and will remain in the municipality for the first 16 days of the month. He'll reside in Vancouver for the final 15 days. He'll spend his time meeting with people who live on welfare and in poverty, learning about their experiences.

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Raise the Rates has told Mr. Brar he can return home once a week, but he hasn't decided whether it's right to accept the offer. He's taking a wait-and-see approach and notes – since Mr. Barnes passed away in 1998 – there's no road map for this quest.

Mr. Brar's preliminary research has indicated he's already behind the eight-ball. He expects it will be difficult to find a suite under $450, slicing into his already-thin budget.

When Mr. Brar first announced he would take the challenge, B.C.'s Liberal government said it has no plans to raise the welfare rate. How, then, will he measure success?

"We have to take bold steps and prepare a practical plan to deal with poverty," he said. "What will that plan be? I don't know. That's why I'm going into this experience. What are the pillars of that poverty plan that can make a real change in the province of British Columbia?"

Bill Hopwood, a Raise the Rates spokesman, said the fact people are discussing poverty is a victory in and of itself. He said having an MLA with a real understanding of poverty will also be of benefit and hopes to see the province adopt a detailed anti-poverty strategy.

"Largely, people in poverty are voiceless," he said. "There's a whole bunch of myths out there. The biggest one is people choose this life, to live on welfare. Most people don't want to be on welfare, in fact I haven't met one who does. Most of them are there because of personal tragedies. Those tragedies could happen to all of us."

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