B.C. MLA encounters surprises during first week of welfare challenge
As he approaches the end of his first week of living on the provincial welfare rate, B.C. MLA Jagrup Brar has already experienced a few surprises and challenges.
“Living on $610 is tough and demoralizing,” he told the Straight by phone following his first few days of an experiment to live on the amount that a single employable welfare recipient gets from the province each month.
Brar said some of the surprises he encountered this week included observing there was only one washroom for 50 people at the homeless shelter in Surrey where he spent his first night. He was also shocked to see, in another shelter, that young couples were forced to sleep on the floor with about 15 other people.
But the saddest thing he saw during his search for a place to live in Surrey was a windowless, closet-sized room big enough to fit a single bed. The room was already rented, to a patient who was coming there after an operation at the hospital.
“That was the room that made me cry,” he said.
After factoring in the cost of his rent, transit passes and cell phone, Brar is left with $30 a week for groceries. He noted his meals today (January 6) consisted of a small bowl of cereal for breakfast, a two-egg omelette with bread for lunch, and a 70-cent meal of noodles and vegetables that he was planning to make for dinner.
“That’s the only thing you feel the whole day—you feel hungry,” he said. “That’s what happens when you are poor. Your whole focus of the day remains food, from where you can eat and what you can eat.”
Raise the Rates, a coalition of community groups concerned about poverty, challenged all B.C. MLAs in May 2011 to try living on $610 for a month.
Bill Hopwood of Raise the Rates said the goal of the challenge was to educate a member of the legislature about the reality of welfare, to raise public awareness of income assistance rates in B.C., and to push for a provincial anti-poverty strategy. According to Hopwood, close to 180,000 people in B.C. are on welfare, and half a million people across the province are living in poverty.
After just a few days of living on the B.C. income assistance rate, Brar noted his perspective has already changed.
“There is a myth out there that poverty is probably linked to one corner of the city,” he said. “And that myth is wrong—poverty’s everywhere.”
“There’s also a kind of myth out there that people on welfare, they don’t want to work and they’re lazy,” he added. “That myth is also wrong—the people I have met, the majority of those people were actually working a major part of their lives.
“They have been hit by so much bad luck in their lives that they ended up in their situation.”
One example, he noted, was a man he spoke to at a Surrey homeless shelter who had lost his wife and two children in a car accident in Winnipeg. He came to Vancouver to escape the memories of the city, and worked in the construction industry and as a bouncer in a night club for almost 20 years. He has now been diagnosed with liver cancer, and is living in a shelter as a result of not being able to work.
The MLA noted he has also spoken to a number of “working poor” in the home in Surrey that he is temporarily sharing with eight or nine people.
“One of the people is a single mother, who used to work as a medical office assistant, and she’s been laid off and her E.I. ran out, and now she’s on welfare,” he explained. Another individual had been on income assistance and is now working, but told Brar he can’t afford to move into his own place, while another tenant is a retired psychiatric nurse on a work pension.
Hopwood noted that unlike income assistance recipients, Brar enters the welfare challenge with advantages including good physical and mental health, the choice to embark on the experiment, and the knowledge that the stint is temporary.
“People don’t choose to go on welfare,” said Hopwood. “People are forced because of personal tragedy—accident, illness, job loss, domestic violence etc. And so he goes into this voluntarily, with the support of his family. Most people are forced into welfare, they don’t choose to go onto welfare. A lot of them are embarrassed, are ashamed.”
Brar sees his experience, in one sense, as being very real, as he attempts to live on the same amount that a single employable welfare recipient gets in a month. But at the same time, the MLA knows that after the end of 31 days, he’ll return to his normal life.
“I don’t have the worries to be on welfare for a long time,” he noted. “I don’t have the worries that my children will go to school hungry. Those people have all that. On that part, my experience is very different from theirs.”
After spending the first 16 days of the month in Surrey, Brar will spend the rest of the month in a single-room occupancy hotel room in Vancouver.