Antipoverty crusader Jean Swanson isn’t exactly thrilled about the prospect of a B.C. NDP government.
It’s not just because she thinks that it’s taking New Democrats too long to say what they’ll do with welfare rates and the minimum wage if they win the May 14 election.
“The last time the NDP was in, they cut back welfare,” Swanson told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview. “They said poor-bashing things about people on welfare. And they brought in a bunch of punitive rules.”
According to the Downtown Eastside–based campaigner, she’s just going by the record “rather than the words”. “With nothing but a record to go on, it doesn’t look good,” Swanson declared.
Although she said she can’t remember precise details about welfare changes made by New Democrats between 1991 and 2001, the 69-year-old activist will not forget what then-premier Mike Harcourt said during his time in office. “When Harcourt was premier, he called people on welfare ‘varmints and deadbeats’,” Swanson said.
Some of these details are recalled in a study commissioned by the Canadian Council on Social Development. Released in 2009, The Best Place on Earth?: Contemporary and Historical Perspectives on Poverty Reduction Policies and Programs in British Columbia notes what happened when the B.C. NDP introduced a program called B.C. Benefits in January 1996.
According to the paper, “income assistance rates were reduced for single youth, couples up to age 24 without dependents, single employable adults, and employable couples aged 25 to 54 without dependents”.
That “also set the stage” for further cuts introduced by the B.C. Liberals in 2002. The study points out that underlying both schemes was the “shared belief that an individual’s choice was the determining factor behind a life of poverty…rather than the inequitable systems that distributed society’s wealth and resources”.
Living on welfare is a reality for tens of thousands of British Columbians.
According to B.C. Ministry of Social Development numbers, there were 177,719 welfare clients in December 2012, up slightly from the previous month’s total of 176,660.
Ministry statistics also show that in 2011, four percent of B.C.’s population, or 181,853 people, was on the welfare rolls. There were also 37,577 dependent children living on income assistance received by their families.
The B.C. NDP maintained the rate for a single employable person at $510 a month from 1995 until the party was defeated by the B.C. Liberals in 2001. It was only increased in 2007 by the B.C. Liberals to $610, an amount that hasn’t changed since then.
Former B.C. NDP leader Carole James emphasized in an interview that her party has committed to a legislated poverty-reduction plan that contains concrete targets and time lines. Now Opposition critic for social development, James added that her successor, Adrian Dix, has also promised to reinstate nonrepayable grants to postsecondary students.
When asked what the NDP would do in its first 100 days in office, before it would have time to enact a comprehensive antipoverty plan, the Victoria–Beacon Hill representative indicated that her party is still finalizing its platform.
“We’re examining all of the options that are available,” James told the Straight by phone. “We want to put in place a plan, but we also want actions in place so that people know that we’re serious.
“Nothing has been taken off the table,” she responded when asked about increases to welfare rates and minimum wage. “But we haven’t made any commitments yet because, I mean, [the] reality is we’re not going to be able to do it all. As you know, we’ve been very clear with the public that these are difficult times, and we’re going to have to look at how we take steps to be able to address the problems.”
James also said: “Although we won’t be able to fix it all because of the economy of British Columbia, that doesn’t mean that we should not get started. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t begin. You may see phased-in programs.…It may be small, practical steps in the beginning.” The new NDP slogan, highlighted at the party’s February 24 pre-election gathering in Burnaby, is “Change for the better: one practical step at a time”.
In a paper released in January 2013, Seth Klein and Iglika Ivanova of the B.C. office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives demonstrated that a three-percent increase in taxes for the province’s top income earners would generate $375 million annually. That’s enough to boost welfare rates by $200 to $400 per month.
In a phone interview, Klein stated that a B.C. NDP government should raise welfare rates and wages as a gesture of “good faith” while it prepares a thorough plan to combat poverty.
“If the other pieces are going to take a little longer to get in place, you need to relieve the pressure right away,” Klein told the Straight.
Vancouver antipoverty activist Bill Hopwood is puzzled as to why the NDP has yet to say anything concrete on improving the incomes of poor people, starting with welfare rates and wages.
“If they haven’t yet worked out a strategy, then I guess the question is why, after several years in Opposition, why haven’t they worked out a strategy?” Hopwood asked in a phone interview. “I honestly do not know.”