Friday, June 15, 2012

Changes to BC's Income Assistance/PWD system: Smoke & Mirrors & Few of the Improvements Really Needed

A lot of this is window dressing and hot air. What has been needed for a decade is to increase rates for basic income assistance and Persons with Disability (PWD), but it seems as though people can talk until they're blue in the face and this government doesn't get it, or care, that its most vulnerable citizens and their children are living in deep, dark poverty.

For instance, increasing the amount of funds people can have in trust, or what they can draw from trust accounts, is meaningless to the vast majority of people on welfare can barely afford shelter, food and the basics on the rates that have been frozen in ice for years while BC became one of the most expensive areas to live in anywhere. It is smoke and mirrors, and at it's worst, it is sophistry at the expense of those who need their government to make real and substantive improvements to their social circumstances.

The really devastating thing will be the change that increases of the "waiting period" for applying for income assistance from 3 to 5 weeks for people who are already in desperate circumstances. This is an inhumane and indefensible new policy that is going to have other social implications as people will inevitably turn to other means to support themselves and their children, such as crime and survival sex. 

BC has led Canada in child poverty for 8 years in a row, which means a generation of children in our province have grown up with deprivation, in deep and unrelenting poverty. Statistics Canada data showed that the child poverty rate in BC rose from 14.5 percent in 2008 to 16.4 percent in 2009 using the agency’s Low Income Cut-Offs (LICOs) before tax as a measure of poverty.

In 2011 the BC office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives calculated that poverty costs British Columbia $8.1 billion to $9.2 billion every year. The estimated cost of a poverty reduction plan would be $3 billion to $4 billion a year – or less than half of what we lose to poverty (Campaign 2000).

In spite of all of this hard data, advocacy from stakeholders and even the business community calling to support our most vulnerable people, the BC government still refuses to create and commit to a substantive poverty reduction plan for our province.

Highlights & Lowlights of the Changes to Income Assistance & Persons with Disability status with Ministry of Social Development:
Announced on June 11th and will come into force later this year.
  • No increase in rates for any category.
  • The three week waiting "work search" period for proceeding with an income assistance application has been extended to five weeks.
  • Clients with an immediate need for food, shelter or urgent medical attention will receive hardship assistance while still being required to undergo a three-week (for returning clients) or five-week (for new clients) work search.
  • BC will be restoring earnings exemptions for all welfare recipients. Earnings exemptions are the rules that allow people on social assistance to earn a little money and keep it (on top of one’s welfare benefits).
  • People on income assistance in the “expected to work” category will be able to earn and keep $200 per month.
  • Earnings exemptions for people with disabilities (those in the PWD category of social assistance) will now rise from $500 to $800 per month with an annual total yearly exemption of $9,600.
  • PWD folks will now be able to calculate and claim their earnings exemptions on an annualized basis, rather than on a monthly basis.
  • Replacement of the Emergency Needs Assessment with the Immediate Needs Assessment
  • The welfare time limit rule that stated people could only collect for 2 out of 5 years has been eliminated and will be replaced with intensified work-search requirements.
  • Increasing the school startup supplement so that families now receive $100 for every child aged 5-11, and $175 for every child 12 and over.
  • Providing access to dental services for children of families on hardship so parents can take their children in for regular dental checkups.
  • Exempting income tax refunds so individuals and families on income assistance will be able to keep their full income tax refund.
  • A single person can now retain assets, including cash, up to $2,000.
  • For single disability assistance clients, their asset limit, including cash, is increasing to $5,000.
  • Expected to Work clients will be able to keep a car valued up to $10,000.
  • Effective spring 2013, mandatory income tax filing to ensure individuals and families are getting all the tax credits to which they are entitled.
  • Parents without status who are fleeing abuse and who cannot leave the country with their children can receive assistance while they work with Citizenship and Immigration Canada to resolve their legal status.
  • A couple who are both collecting disability assistance can earn up to $1,600 per month without impacting their benefits.
  • People on disability assistance can now invest up to $200,000 - double the previous amount - in a non-discretionary trust account. This is the same amount that individuals can keep in their Registered Disability Savings Plan (RDSP).
  • Individuals will be able to access up to $8,000 per year from their trust account for any other cost related to promoting independence - nearly double the previous annual allowance - and make their own choices about how best to use these funds.
  • In April the Ministry of Social Development opened 85 centres in communities throughout the province to deliver the new Employment Program of B.C.
A full list of changes can be found here on the BC Government page

Some analysis and advocacy about changes and continuing needs:
BC Coalition of Persons with Disability: The Facts – PWD Rates in B.C.

New BC welfare rules: some positive steps forward (and a couple steps back) 

Policy Note, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (BC office)


Pay Now, or Pay Later: Kids N' Crime 2: Economic Aspects of the Development and Prevention of Criminality Among Children & Youth

Report by the Vancouver Board of Trade and Justice Institute of BC, 2010.