Oct 17, 2016

Poverty Reduction: When will the government start listening to British Columbians?


If the government were listening to British Columbians, it would have heard that families are struggling to make ends meet because of rising food and housing costs, childcare fees, MSP premiums, and hydro rates.

It would have heard that over 1,000 people in the highest-ever homeless count in Vancouver this year are new to homelessness. Tent cities throughout the province are symptoms of a housing crisis in all BC communities. Shelters are not temporary stops on the way to something better because there is nowhere else to go. Affordable housing doesn’t exist for so many.

But the government hasn’t listened for years.

The cry of unaffordability is thick in the air, and it’s the symptom of a very-broken social safety net taken from under our feet.

Every fall, the Select Standing Committee on Finance and Government Services holds province-wide public consultations on what people think should be included in the next provincial budget. And every fall, community groups of every stripe, including the BC Poverty Reduction Coalition, dutifully present or write to the committee. But this year, we didn’t participate.

The cry of unaffordability is thick in the air.

And it wasn’t because we no longer need a provincial poverty reduction plan. Far from it. Rather, our reluctance was because for years a chorus of voices has been making this call and it continues to fall on deaf ears – not on the part of the committee, but rather the government.

In fact, the bi-partisan committee has recommended a provincial poverty reduction plan for the last three years after hearing the call come up again and again in consultations throughout BC.

As Einstein said, “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” So we decided to shake it up this year.

If the government were listening, it would have heard that people with disabilities really need their bus passes. Faced with an untenable choice, foregoing a bus pass to buy food becomes the only option, and this cuts off people with disabilities from community life.

If the government listened, it would have heard the Welfare Food Challenge, which started yesterday – October 16th, challenges people to spend only $18 for food. The welfare rate of $610 has not increased since 2007, and the average rent of a boarding hotel room in the Downtown Eastside with no bathroom or kitchen is now over $500. This leaves very little for food.

The government would have heard that about half the people living in poverty in BC actually have a job – even two or three. In Metro Vancouver, just over 100,000 working people are poor. This is not surprising given that the minimum wage is about half the living wage (depending on the community), and the living wage reflects the actual cost of living. Work should lift you out of poverty but it doesn’t for so many in our province.

If the government were listening, it would have heard that BC has one of the highest poverty rates in Canada, with one in five children living in poverty. Almost half a million British Columbians experience some level of food insecurity. Yet, BC is the only province without a poverty reduction plan.

Newfoundland and Labrador reduced food insecurity by 50 per cent by raising welfare rates.  

The government would have heard that other places are saving lives and money with poverty reduction plans. Newfoundland and Labrador reduced food insecurity by 50 per cent by raising welfare rates. Quebec provides universal childcare that takes the burden off families and actually makes money for the government. With provincial funding, Medicine Hat, Alberta has ended homelessness in their city by building homes.

The government would have heard a strong collective call from local governments for provincial action with 24 municipalities passing resolutions in support of a poverty reduction plan for BC with legislated targets and timelines. And the Union of BC Municipalities has unanimously passed resolutions in support of this call since 2009, most recently on September 28 this year.

The government would have heard that poverty is bad for all of us. Homeless people die half a lifetime younger than those with homes. Children in poverty do not grow up happy and healthy. And, all of us suffer health-wise from living in an unequal society. Our province loses eight to nine billion dollars annually because of the costs of poverty.

Perhaps with an election on the horizon, the government will decide that now is the time for listening. If we’re so loud, we can’t be ignored, and we’re stronger together. So let’s all tell the government to listen up!

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