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.

Comments (39) Add New Comment
GZLFB
I am shocked, that he can't do number crunching and figure it out that way. He has to make a big show of it, to say it?
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Gentleman Jack
GZLFB, there are lots of inbred, mendacious, sociopathic types who won't really accept that there's anything wrong with paying people starvation wages. They also tend to be bad at math, unless it benefits them, e.g., finding mathematical ways to "justify" underfunding public services.

This sort of exercise will convince some people who have a bit of compassion, but who might be very bad at math. It will also provide evidence about the crisis-state of BC's social service.

It's not him making the show---it's a challenge that is put on by a group, open to any MLA with the cojones to see how a large proportion of British Columbians live.
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prenup
OK, so welfare isnt pleasant and comfortable. It allows to you barely survive forcing you to get back to work instead of sitting back and getting used to a life paid for you by the hard work of others.

I, for one, am glad this experiment proved what I hope welfare is doing. BTW its called "income assistance", not pension.
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BikerCK
I was skeptical of this at first, but in reading the media coverage I see that Mr. Brar is 'getting it'. Considering how many MLAs AREN'T willing to take on this challenge, I tip my hat to him for having the guts to live on social assistance, even if it's only for a month.
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J-stroy
Hungry all the time is the least of it.. The amateur is in his first month. Wait until his teeth start rotting and hurting for lack of dental work, that clothes and shoes wear out & he has to choose shoes over food, let alone desperately trying little attempts to make a few extra dollars and getting threatened by people he borrowed money from. Hungry? feh.
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glen p robbins
I was with some ROBBINS Researchers listening to NW yesterday - when a discussion about welfare came up. A female guest was making the case that welfare was too low. The male guest was making the case that it was just right (the BC Liberal case). We agreed that the man was annoying as he was one of these politicos whose voice is set in a manner where he sounds like he finds anything his rival says is incredulous (a certain sign of a weak arguer pandering to a weak listener).

At one point the woman encouraging higher welfare rates made an example of one rate for I believe a single parent with a child. The BC Liberal male was dismayed telling her essentially she was wrong - and then to make his math right - this man calculated his totals including HST and other elements erroneous to the discussion. The woman replied - everyone gets that (the HST).

All the researchers in concert said "turn it off" - NW. One realizes the incongruence of government which has the economy as it alleged cornerstone for policy development - when those promoting the mathematics which they presume to know better become emotional and shroud dishonesty in drama - while the ones advocating for (in this case) the poor - sound like accountants.

There are a number of things to consider in this debate which are often left too loose: First, full employment at higher wages will cause massive inflation - so we can't have that. Therefore - this fact assumes there will be some 'losers'. Those people who have unfortunately become the losers (including the drug addicted etc.) must find a way to survive if the government rates for welfare are too low - this includes stealing - etc.

Bismarck - was a German leader who brought in welfare. He was also Conservative and protector of the wealthy. Why did he bring in welfare? Simple - to divide and conquer the very poor who had nothing - and accordingly nothing to lose. When poor people have nothing to lose - they become emboldened to simply take it from the rich.

If there isn't change - the time will come when the poor are going to rob the rich - and worse. That time is just around the corner.

Watch out.
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Singlemama
I'm so glad that this finally happening. As a single mom of two my biggest concern living on welfare is how to feed my children healthy meals and still pay the bills. Forget about new clothes or toys those are luxuries on my income. Thankfully we live in BC Housing and not in a dark cold basement suite. I know alot of moms who spend most of their cheque on rent. BC has the highest child poverty rate in North America. Not something many BC residents are aware of.
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Ben Humphreys
I greatly respect him for taking part, when the rest of the MLA's were so gutless as to not consider doing so. Whether he did it to elevate his standing or not, he is raising awareness and at least he seems to "get it".
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Point of Order
One month on welfare should be mandatory for all would-be candidates for public office.

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Mokeira
It is nice to see you experiencing this ..but a true experiment would be for you to try it for 1 year and then tell us what it is really like to LIVE on welfare and not just SAMPLE it!!!
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Dianne G
Thank you to the tireless members of Raise the Rates and to MLA Brar for bringing home the personal stories of so many people who experience the 24/7 impacts of welfare poverty and what it's like to be working poor in B.C.

Pay now, pay later - we all pay dearly in the long run. BC policy and budget priorities bring shame to us all.

Over to you MLA's - a BC poverty reduction plan and timelines are a must.
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Folly
It's one thing to do the math and SAY that someone cannot live on that amount but it's a complete other thing to SHOW it. That's what he is doing and it is opening a lot of eyes. I'm sure this will lead to some positive change in BC.

Also, I would assume that the government has done some sort of math to decipher the completely arbitrary amount of $610 for one man to live in the Lower Mainland but obviously, the math was wrong. Just because technically one can survive on $610 does not mean someone can live on it.
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13 month calendar
BC Government reformed calendar to equalize the length of each month in the year. This is accomplished by creating a calendar that has 13 months of 4 weeks (28 days) each, making 364 days.
Warfare clients get paid for only 12 months of the 13 month year and the HST rebate makes up for the 13 month. BC Government has made it your 13 cheque despite promises clients would receive rebate.
Income assistance clients receive benefits for only 28 days of every month, 12 months of the year and on the fourth month when the Rebates come out the clients have to do 35 days on a cheque for 28 days, four times a year.
BC Government are liars. Those on Warfare do not get the rebate. Assistance cheques are clawed back so clients go without return of HSTand are forced to use rebate for the missing cheque for the 13 month.as income assistance clients only receive money for 336 days of 365 days of the year.
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no gst no carbon tax rebate....
For the poorest in the land as even the richest polluters receive benefit from the tax but those on Warfare are forced to go without because it is used as a monthly payment which will also be taxed. Enough of the lies about how the poor would not be taxed.
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Glen Robbins and Robin Hood
Perhaps some of the poor sound like accountants because some are. When I wasn't in so much pain volunteering was great fun and I even had the privilege of sitting on a committee for Seeds where Mr. Brar was director. And some political science and marketing and on and on as illness cuts you down to size and can leave you for broke. It isn't Health Care anymore its Health Scare and Robbins stealing from the rich to give to the poor is laughable because BC Liberals are stealing from the poor to give to the filthy rich. Its like taking candy from babies or selling it to them down at Quest to watch their little teeth rot out because they can do it without any worries about repercussions from the lowly poor.
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Correction in article
But at the same time, the MLA knows that after the end of 31(35) days, he’ll return to his normal life. Welfare was given out December 18, 2011 and the next cheque for 28 days assistance is set for January 25, 2012, exactly 35 days from the last cheque and there is nothing normal about that.
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unknown sample
if you can't make it in Canada, then you couldn't make it anywhere.

welfare should not be for the long term. getting some form of work is necessary for survival.

for the able bodied, quit whining and start working.
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Gentleman Jack
"...by ftatute 43 Eliz. c. 2. overfeers of the poor were appointed in every parifh

BY virtue of the ftatute laft mentioned, thefe overfeers are to be nominated yearly in Eafter-week, or within one month after, by two juftices dwelling near the parifh. They muft be fubftantial houfeholders, and fo expreffed to be in the appointment of the juftices.

THEIR office and duty, according to the fame ftatute, are principally thefe: firft, to raife competent fums for the neceffary relief of the poor, impotent, old, blind, and fuch other, being poor and not able to work: and, fecondly, to provide work for fuch as are able and cannot otherwife get employment: but this latter part of their duty, which, according to the wife regulations of that falutary ftatute, fhould go hand in hand with the other, is now moft fhamefully neglected."
(1 Bl. Comm. 348)

Under Elizabeth, the overseers of the poor had duty "to provide work for fuch as are able and cannot otherwife get employment." Whither that duty today? Why, as in Blackstone's day, such duty "is now moft fhamefully neglected."

Q: Why doesn't welfare offer employment for the able-bodied?
A: Because then they would have to pay at least min, wage.

unknown sample:

"The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions. The States Parties will take appropriate steps to ensure the realization of this right, recognizing to this effect the essential importance of international co-operation based on free consent."

Canada recognizes that. You clearly do not. Note that it does not say "the right of workers to an adequate standard of living." "Everyone" includes workers and non-workers.

Everyone already does work: they follow the positive law of the corporations: Federal Corporations, Provincial Corporations, Municipal Corporations. It's quite a job---don't cross the street there; wear your seatbelt; don't sell this; don't practice that art! Following positive law is 'work' and wages are due. Or, US, are you willing to put your folksy libertarianism where your mouth is and allow us all to live under the law of nature?

N.B. that it is merely by the law of society that people should not duel, make war, etc. etc. Society is a quid pro quo, unknown sample. You don't seem to "get it." I hope nobody eats you!

The same international covenant to which Canada is a party says that

"The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right to work, which includes the right of everyone to the opportunity to gain his living by work which he freely chooses or accepts, and will take appropriate steps to safeguard this right."

You don't seem to believe that work should be "freely" chosen or accepted---you seem to believe in some sort of cryptoeugenic 'work or starve/enjoy poor health' dystopia where inadequacy is the stick and adequacy is the juicy carrot.

Kids, meet unknown sample, an excellent example of a 21st century eugenicist---they're no longer comfortable talking about _killing_ the poor, but they're more than happy to consign them to a sort of living death. The point above about dental decay is spot-on. Oh, but they "shouldn't" be on welfare that long anyway, so it serves them right.
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Smoochy
Who the hell are you to dictate policy to the masses, US? The issue is far more complex than you are obviously able to comprehend.

I got your whine RIGHT HERE. *points down* You don't like how we do things, feel free to move to Alabama. You should feel right at home there.

We're all in this together, despite your protestations to the contrary.
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glen p robbins
Actually, forgive my mis-communication - I did not intend to disparage the person by referring to her as an accountant. I was actually acknowledging that I believed her straight forward portrayal of the facts - I intended to compliment her not dangle an inference that she was clever with numbers.
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