This weekend, activists held a demonstration in Vancouver to turn the shortage of affordable housing into a provincial election issue.
It comes after Straight reporter Carlito Pablo wrote an article highlighting why antipoverty activists aren't happy with the NDP's vague proposals for helping low-income British Columbians.
Meanwhile, the B.C. Poverty Reduction Coalition has promised to issue a report in April on how all parties are dealing with this issue.
It points to pressure building on Adrian Dix to shed light on what B.C.'s income-assistance policies might look like under an NDP government.
The NDP has often been rife with divisions over this topic. After forming government in 1991, the minister responsible for income assistance, Joan Smallwood, introduced a number of progressive policies.
They included significantly raising rates and allowing single parents to continue collecting full benefits until their children turned seven. Smallwood represented Surrey-Whalley, which was one of the poorest constituencies in the province.
This was in an era when the federal government maintained national standards for welfare. Provinces that didn't adhere to them would have their federal transfer payments clawed back.
However in 1995, then–federal finance minister Paul Martin eliminated those national standards in his budget. This prompted a race to the bottom among many provinces, including B.C.
This was a major turning point in accelerating homelessness across Canada—though former prime minister Jean Chrétien tried to deny this in a 2007 interview with the Straight.
A vicious media backlash against rising welfare expenditures led then-premier MIke Harcourt to overhaul the system.
After the obliteration of national standards for welfare, the NDP government introduced a residency requirement, cutting off benefits to out-of-province applicants for three months. Thanks to the efforts of the B.C. Public Interest Advocacy Centre, this measure was struck down in court.
After Gordon Campbell became premier in 2001, the B.C. government sharply cut benefits and eliminated earnings exemptions for those deemed employable.
Single parents fell into an "expected to work" category when their kids turned three, even if there wasn't childcare available. And recipients had to demonstrate "independence" for two years to quality for benefits. For some young people, it was a fast track into prostitution.
After Carole Taylor became finance minister, the B.C. government boosted rates somewhat to offset the draconian cuts imposed by Campbell. But the ban remained in place for employables topping up their welfare benefits with part-time work. Even family-maintenance payments were clawed back on a dollar-for-dollar basis as part of the neoliberal "reforms".
Only recently with Christy Clark as premier were earnings exemptions reinstated for people "expected to work". They can collect $200 per month before any income is seized.
This move came after Vancouver-Hastings NDP MLA Shane Simpson—the party's then-social-development critic—introduced a private member's bill called the 2011 Poverty Reduction Act in the legislature.
In 2011, I interviewed Simpson, the NDP caucus chair, to gain some clarity into how an NDP government would deal with poverty. It offers the clearest insights yet into how the party might tackle this issue if it forms government (see the video below).
Shane Simpson talked about poverty in 2011.
On the issue of earnings exemptions, he wouldn't be pinned down to a percentage.
"At this point, I thing we're looking at a flat number at the outset," Simpson said.
When asked for a ballpark figure, he replied that it would be "in the range of a couple of hundred bucks a month".
In other words, the B.C. Liberal government has already done what Simpson was suggesting the NDP might do.
He added that it would be impractical to take everyone on social assistance and lift their earnings to the poverty rate, which is generally defined as Statistics Canada's "low-income cut-offs".
The LICO is where a family spends 20 percent more of its income than the average on food, shelter, and clothing.
"It would be extremely expensive, quite frankly, just to move everybody on assistance to that level," Simpson said. "You would also create a bit of a conflict currently because then you would have people at a level greater than minimum wage."
Instead of setting specific levels of assistance, his private member's bill outlined a process for reducing poverty. It included appointing a lead minister to develop a strategy in collaboration with a cabinet committe cochaired by the premier.
The strategy would include measures to determine "the breadth and depth of poverty". It would identify groups experiencing higher rates and factors leading to poverty.
In addition, it would include a government action plan to deal with poverty, as well as timelines for achieving reductions.
There would also be "periodic review and revision of the strategy", along with an annual report to the legislature outlining progress on achieving the targets.
"It talked about a process," Simpson said in 2011. "It talked about objectives. It didn't say we would so x, y and z, or that we will achieve this, but said over a year period, we would in fact set those things in place—working with stakeholders, with people who are on assistance, with a range of experts—and determine how to move forward."
During the Campbell era, then–NDP leader Carole James championed a $10 per hour minimum wage. Campbell's successor, Premier Clark, has since lifted it to $10.25.
So with Clark having restored the same earnings exemption that Simpson proposed and having beaten the NDP's proposal for lifting the minimum wage, poor people might wonder if it will make any difference in their lives if they even vote.
NDP Leader Adrian Dix has promised to restore student grants, so there is an upside for those considering attending postsecondary education.
The B.C. Liberals eliminated income tax for the poorest British Columbians and also brought in rent supplements for low-income families—something the last NDP government never did. And with antipoverty advocates agitating for more, the NDP is isn't offering anything beyond a promise to create a plan.
It's an ominous sign that Dix has appointed James, one of his more conservative MLAs, as his social-development critic. She also cochairs the party platform committee with finance critic Bruce Ralston, who represents the same Surrey-Whalley constituency that elected Smallwood in the 1980s and 1990s.
James represents Victoria-Beacon Hill in the legislature, which has a large seniors' population but which cannot be described as poverty-stricken. As NDP leader, she focused a great deal of attention on children's and seniors' issues, but didn't put income assistance anywhere near the top of her agenda.
Simpson, on the other hand, has firsthand experience with poverty as a child. His constituency includes a large First Nations population, who are among the poorest people in the province. If there's a minister overseeing income assistance with many constituents on income assistance, the odds increase for more progressive social policy.
Powell River–Sunshine Coast MLA Nicholas Simons has also been a strong advocate for dealing with poverty. During his ill-fated run for the NDP leadership, he proposed a $12 per hour minimum wage and the most comprehensive antipoverty strategy of all the candidates. In a shrewd move, Dix named Simons the deputy critic for social development, suggesting that he may have some input into the party's policy.
Vancouver–Mount Pleasant MLA Jenny Kwan is another experienced member of the legislature who understands the shortcomings of the government's antipoverty policies. She's the critic for jobs, economic development, and trade.
If Dix is truly interested in "change for the better", he will instruct James and Ralston to ensure that the NDP election platform includes more flesh on the bones of its current antipoverty policy. Then Dix will follow up after the election by appointing a minister overseeing income assistance who has made this issue a priority in the past.
Ideally, this person will represent one of the province's poorest constituencies. Otherwise, all we can expect is more of the same.