Judging by newspaper headlines, B.C.'s economy is booming. But for Bonnie McKay, a single mother with a five-year-old son who's been on and off income assistance for years, the benefits seem far away.
“I'm stuck,” McKay, who suffers from a congenital spine defect that makes it difficult to work, said during a phone interview. “I can't make enough fast enough to overcome the inertia to bust free and keep off the [income-assistance] system.”
When McKay graduated from high school, she lived alone with her son, who was nine months old. She said income assistance helped get her through high school and into college, where she balanced studies in business administration with childcare and a part-time job. Last spring, McKay completed a bachelor of fine arts degree at Emily Carr Institute. So along with business administration, she has also earned a diploma in graphic design. She says she had $80,000 of student-loans debt, and although now under “persistent multiple barrier” status because of her medical condition””spondylolisthesis, akin to a herniated disc””she has applied for disability status under the income-assistance program.
“I started way behind, and have been trying to go to school,” she said. “But there's so much evidence in my life of failure, and no success.”
According to the provincial government's Ministry of Employment and Income Assistance, some 306,700 jobs have been created in B.C. since 2001, and unemployment is at the lowest recorded level ever: 4.8 percent last August. The Vancouver skyline is dotted with cranes. The total provincewide income-assistance caseload (one case consists of a single person or a family) has dropped by 36 percent since 2001, when the ministry began implementing a range of policy changes, including introducing more stringent eligibility criteria for income-assistance applicants and measures that allowed easier removal of cases, scaling back on staff, closing offices, and cutting social-assistance programs.
The Income Assistance Project, a qualitative five-year study conducted by researchers from UBC, SFU, and UNBC, is keeping tabs on the effects of this policy. Researchers are investigating how low-income, lone-mother families have been affected by the 2002 policy changes. Beginning in 2003, researchers worked with 22 single mothers in urban Vancouver and the rural Bulkley Valley. So far, they have found that these parents have been hit hard.
Using the most recent numbers from Statistics Canada (2004), Income Assistance Project researcher Jane Pulkingham found that while just over one-third of Canada's lone mothers are poor, in B.C., almost half of the province's single mothers live in poverty. In a recent article written for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), Pulkingham states that in B.C., poverty levels (based on Statistics Canada's low-income cutoff) among single mothers rose 15.8 percentage points between 2000 and 2004, and in Vancouver it rose 24 percentage points.
“Some people like to say that the poverty measurements you use are just relative, and therefore artificial,” said Pulkingham in a phone interview. “But...the same measures are used across the country....Looking at the labour market, the median market incomes are different in B.C. than they are nationally.”
Income-assistance rates in B.C. for individuals and families have been reduced over the past 12 years. According to an April 2006 CCPA report titled Budget Savings on the Backs of the Poor, benefits for single-parent families were cut or “clawed back” between $43 and $90 from April 2002 to March 2004. During the same period, shelter allowances for families of three or more dropped between $55 and $75. According to the Bank of Canada's inflation calculator, the cost of living over those 12 years increased by 28 percent.
The government says rates haven't risen in so-called “expected to work” cases because the ministry's program focuses its resources on people in the “disabled” or “persistent multiple barriers” to employment categories.
“The purpose of B.C.'s system is to help people that are capable of working to find and keep jobs,” said Richard Chambers, the Ministry of Employment and Income Assistance communications director, in a phone interview. “[The province] has a system of supports in place for the people most in need.”
A local advocacy group called Raise the Rates has been petitioning municipal councils and other organizations across B.C. to raise income-assistance levels. Last summer, Maple Ridge and Victoria city councils adopted motions that supported higher levels of income assistance, as did the Vancouver and District Labour Council. Burnaby council is scheduled to hear the motion later this year. The Anglican Church also recently distributed information about the Raise the Rates campaign to all 159 of its Lower Mainland parishes.
“In the old days, reform meant to make things better,” Jean Swanson, a veteran antipoverty activist and spokesperson for Raise the Rates, said in a phone interview. “Things have gotten worse for everyone.”
Another recent report published by the Income Assistance Project found that the 2002 policies put undue pressure on the social networks of single mothers on income assistance. In the report, the study's lead researcher, Penny Gurstein, writes that “when [these women] inevitably...need aid, they are told by their social workers to rely on assistance from family and friends first, thereby depleting the resources in their social support networks” .
McKay, who at one point had to pass her son to her ex-husband's care (she will soon change her name back to Ayotte), has lived with her father for the last two-and-a-half years. She moved in after suffering both marital problems that led to the breakdown of the relationship and an eating disorder, and she uses her shelter allowance to help with rent and utilities. She also lends a hand with household chores to help pay for groceries she can't afford.
“If it was not for my dad, in all seriousness, I would probably not be alive,” she said. “I couldn't afford to keep him [my son] and had to deal with the guilt of that.”
In the past, single parents could stay at home to care for their children full-time and receive income assistance until their child reached the age of seven. Now, when their children turn three, parents must actively look for work.
“Before 2002, a single mother could combine income assistance and work to get above the poverty line,” said Seth Klein, director of the CCPA's B.C. branch in a phone interview. “Now, in real terms, [assistance levels] are lower than any time they've been since [people] began keeping tabs in 1986.”
In 2002, the government cancelled spousal support exemptions for single parents””a $100 monthly maintenance payment from a former spouse. As well, government policy removed so-called earning exemptions for the 30% of individuals on income assistance in the expected-to-work category. This means single parents on welfare are no longer able to keep up to $200 of earnings per month. Instead, every dollar earned through any employment is a dollar subtracted from their monthly income-assistance cheque.
“[At the Ministry] we believe that income assistance is asset-based,” Chambers said. “People are entitled to and eligible for it based on the amount they earn...There's no [income] exemption for people expected to work.”
Chambers referred to a 2001 study from the United States entitled “How Welfare and Work Policies Affect Employment and Income” , stating it found that for people in the expected-to-work category, earnings exemptions helped reduce the amount of time spent on income assistance. He noted the average length of expected-to-work cases was four months, and said earnings exemptions can perpetuate generational dependency on income assistance.
“The study indicated that earnings exemptions often keep people on the [welfare] caseload longer,” he said. “Combining part-time work with income assistance does not move people towards the ultimate goal of full-time employment...Our ultimate goal is people...[returning] to the work force as soon as possible.”
However, the Income Assistance Project's Gurstein found that earnings exemptions help ease the transition from income assistance to employment.
“There's no incentive to do any extra work because you can't keep the money,” she said during an interview. “If you're trying to get someone off welfare, a good way is for them to start working part-time...and gain skills before working full-time.”
The province's training programs have recently undergone reform. Beginning October 2, 2006, the ministry's Community Assistance Program will focus solely on life-skills and advocacy services for the most vulnerable income-assistance clients, with services tailored to the needs of individual clients. As well, last summer the ministry launched the B.C. Employment Program, which aims to deliver an individualized package of employment services and supports.
In B.C., the number of single-parent income-assistance cases is 56,700 lower since the reforms, Chambers said. However, it is difficult to assess if this drop is from fewer people entering the system or more people leaving it after finding steady work. Chambers said privacy issues and reluctance among former income-assistance clients to stay in contact with the ministry preclude it from gathering data to track whether or not these individuals move into long-term employment.
“There is no requirement for people who have left income assistance to let the office know where they are and what they are doing,” he said. “Most people, when they are off [income assistance] don't want to have anything to do with us.”
Chambers did note that through government programs, employment and training service providers pass on information on the types of jobs they are matching clients up with””say, positions as grocery clerks or painters””that can pay “anywhere up to $11 an hour” .
As for McKay, her encounter with income assistance has been a frustrating experience. Offices are understaffed, and she said she rarely met people face-to-face when she tried to reach ministry staff to discuss her benefits. She was often confused by the process.
“The whole thing is bizarre, [but] I'm trying to follow the rules, trying to be honest,” she said. “People who get on the system can't get off””I'm still looking for a way out.”
Recently, support for the Raise the Rates campaign has grown, with organizations from municipal governments to churches pressing the province to change its policies with regards to income assistance.
And according to Chambers, the ministry is aware of municipal-government support for raising the rates.
But will anything be done?