MLA Mable Elmore has been blasted in the media recently for claiming reimbursements for food while she was taking the Welfare Food Challenge in November last year, trying to eat with only $19 for the whole week.
A mistake by her and her staff has garnered far more attention than the fact that the Welfare Food Challenge is not able to run this year because the amount left over for food is only $6 per week. Once rent is subtracted from the deeply inadequate rate of $710 per month, only $23 remains to cover all other basic needs. This is using the average lowest rent for an SRO in the Downtown Eastside of $687.
The B.C. Liberal Party released a copy of Elmore’s expense report on Wednesday and highlighted expense claims—during the week of the challenge—of meal per diem payments of $61 a day.
The issue that should have been highlighted is that the welfare rates were frozen at $610 per month for 10 years and were only increased by $100 in 2017. The current welfare rate is less than half the official Canadian poverty line, a measure that calculates what is actually needed to live.
And the real issue is what this reveals about how we value different people.
For food alone, MLAs are allowed to apply for reimbursement of $1,220 per month, if we consider four full five-day weeks of work at the legislature. Their housing allowance on top of that is at a minimum $1,000 per month for a total of $2,220.
So the amount the government provides an MLA for food and housing is over three times the amount for those in desperate need on welfare. MLAs seem to value themselves far more than they value those on welfare in the deepest poverty.
And, for the most part, we stand by and watch while people are devalued and dehumanized through a government system that should be part of a strong social safety net ready to support us when we need it, whether we’re facing a serious illness, a work accident, fleeing domestic violence, or any number of unforeseen circumstances that could plunge any one of us into poverty.
Elmore has now promised to pay back the amount she should not have claimed in an attempt to remedy the situation. She goes on to say that the Welfare Food Challenge shows why the province needs a poverty reduction plan. What the challenge actually shows is that the upcoming poverty reduction plan must include a significant increase in the welfare rates, and I look forward to seeing Elmore and the government remedy that situation.
This is the way to address the real issue by valuing people in deep poverty and recognizing their humanity.
Government itself has done the math and found that increasing income and disability assistance rates to 75 percent of the poverty line (using the market basket measure) costs only $372 million. The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives has gone further and calculated the cost of lifting those folks out of poverty entirely, and found that increasing the rates to 100 percent of the poverty line costs $1.16 billion.
This sounds like a lot to most of us—an impossible, out of reach amount—but we have to remember that the provincial government has $50 billion of our public money in its budget so this amounts to only two percent of this. Completely possible and within our reach.
And, more importantly, we have to remember that this is fundamentally about valuing people and their humanity.