Why not honour Jean Swanson for her tireless fight against legislated poverty?

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      This week, my colleague Travis Lupick reported on how the City of Vancouver is paying tribute to LGBT community leader Jim Deva.

      A public plaza in Davie Village will be named after him in recognition of his efforts to promote equal rights and create a safer city for gays, lesbians, and transgender people.

      This led me to think about who else in Vancouver has distinguished himself or herself for tirelessly working on behalf of a marginalized community.

      The obvious answer is Jean Swanson. With quiet dignity, keen intelligence, and an often wry sense of humour, she has relentlessly advocated on behalf of the poorest residents of the province for more than three decades.

      Swanson has been a beacon in the Downtown Eastside, inspiring a generation of activists to fight for the retention of affordable housing.

      In her years as chair of the National Anti-Poverty Organization, she laid bare the brutality of former finance minister Paul Martin's 1995 budget. It eliminated national social-assistance standards, which triggered an unrelenting slide into greater inequality and the growth in homelessness that plagues us today.

      Swanson was also in the front lines fighting the NDP government's subsequent race to the bottom in the 1990s after the elimination of national welfare standards. It culminated in an illegal decision to cut benefits to those who hadn't lived in the province for three months, which was struck down in court.

      After the B.C. Liberals took power in 2001, then premier Gordon Campbell imposed some of the most vicious cuts to social assistance imaginable. He clawed back family-maintenance payments and imposed a two-year independence test on young claimants.

      In addition, the B.C. Liberal government declared single parents "employable"—which meant sharply lower benefits—when their children turned three rather than seven. Campbell, himself the son of a single mother, did this even though there was no affordable childcare for these parents.

      One of the most obnoxious aspects of his welfare package was the elimination of earnings exemptions. It meant that those collecting social assistance would have all part-time earned income clawed back dollar-for-dollar.

      It truly was legislated poverty. And Swanson rose up time and again to try to educate the community about its effects.

      In recent years, she's played a pivotal role in the Raise the Rates campaign, which helped persuade former finance minister Carole Taylor to give the poorest among us a meagre raise.

      Swanson also pushed the province to reinstate an earnings exemption and scrap the clawback on child support. And she campaigned for increases to the minimum wage, which occurred shortly after Christy Clark became premier.

      Things aren't nearly as bad as they might be for the poor had Swanson not been living in B.C.

      As a writer and community activist, Swanson has also repeatedly fought negative characterizations of low-income people in the media. She's helped educate the community about the links between growing inequality and poorer health outcomes.

      Vancouverites shouldn't have to wait until she passes away before naming a social-housing project or a community centre after her.

      And given her commitment to the poor, Swanson would probably rather have any benefits from her work flow to the most needy among us than merely sticking her name on something.

      So why not do something innovative to honour this champion for the poor? Why not reverse the B.C. Liberals' recent tax cut for people earning over $150,000 per year, which will cost the treasury $236 million per year?

      Why not take these funds and put them into social housing in the Downtown Eastside and name one of the new buildings after her?

      The Opposition New Democrats could call this the Swanson Pledge. It would go a long way toward repairing relationships with antipoverty activists who were so deeply disappointed in the party's 2013 election platform.

      One reason why Swanson hasn't received sufficient recognition is because politicians at all levels of government have such difficulty responding to her well-reasoned arguments. Elected officials will never feel as warmly about her as they did about Deva, who was a cheerful small businessman.

      Swanson is like a mirror, reminding politicians of their shortcomings in serving the entire community. And that irritates some of them because they don't like this being reflected back in their face.

      But it doesn't mean that her contributions should go unrecognized. There are many single parents in B.C. whose lives have been immeasurably improved by Jean Swanson.

      It's time for the wider community, including MLAs in the legislature, to acknowledge this.




      Jul 8, 2015 at 10:26am

      People like Jean Swanson need to be honored for the work that they do, and as a reminder on what still needs to be done.

      Most of my heroes don't appear on stamps.


      Jul 8, 2015 at 10:37am

      Yes, she deserves acknowledgement. Year in year out, I see her name connected to the good fight. This column sums up her many contributions very nicely, thank you Charlie.

      Gena Kolson

      Jul 8, 2015 at 11:20am

      I'd vote for that! Jean Swanson deserves recognition for her tireless efforts.

      Tamara Herman

      Jul 8, 2015 at 11:50am

      YES!!! This article nails it. Jean would hate being publicly acknowledge for her amazing work, but the movement deserves to see her recognized!

      Mark Schneider

      Jul 8, 2015 at 12:17pm

      Charlie - the word that describes Jean Swanson is 'indefatigable'. I remember her tireless campaigning as a reporter for CBC and BCTV back in the day. Jean, and Clare Culhane (a similarly tireless campaigner for prisoners rights, who sadly died without sufficient civil acknowledgment) are the kind of people who keep everybody honest: the politicians, bureaucrats, and even us ordinary citizens. What a great idea Charlie.


      Jul 8, 2015 at 12:23pm

      So Charlie, the government gives money to those in need - they go out and earn some money at a job on the side or whatever - then the government reduces the income it gives to equal the income earned, and you call it "legislated poverty"? Seems the government is looking out for the taxpayers by making sure people who need income assistance aren't cheating the government by getting assistance they might not need since they can obviously earn it on their own. You seem to think that the government should give income assistance to people regardless of what they earn on the side. So where does that stop? At what point does someone stop being someone in need and become someone who is taking advantage of the system? I'm trying not to be mean, I'm just asking a question. Does the liberal viewpoint mean that we should give income assistance to anyone who claims they need it, or does it call for reasonable guidelines? What might those guidelines be? You can't give income assistance to people just because they say they need it - they must meet the guidelines. Simple idea really!!!

      Charlie Smith

      Jul 8, 2015 at 2:46pm

      I'm talking about a basic earnings exemption, which exists in virtually every other jurisdiction in North America. It helps people make the transition into employment, which ultimately saves the government money. Earnings exemptions are capped. Christy Clark set it at $200 per month for those expected to work.

      If you're interested in reading guidelines, the link below might help.


      Chris Green

      Jul 8, 2015 at 9:57pm

      Apparently ? isn't aware that economists classify welfare payments as a tax credit, not government spending (as the government does not receive any goods or services in exchange for the payment of the benefits). So, when governments claw back these payments from employment income, recipients are paying taxes at the rate of the clawback. The highest marginal rate of tax is thus paid by the poorest citizens, who are taxed 100% on their earnings (after the $200 exemption).

      I think we can all picture how well the wealthiest citizens would react to their marginal income tax rate being increased to 100%.

      Sharon Gregson

      Jul 9, 2015 at 1:41am

      You said it all so well. Along with her wonderful partner Sandy Cameron, who has now sadly passed on, Jean has been a dignified intelligent relentless voice for the poor. She deserves this recognition for her tireless work.

      Peter Steven

      Jul 9, 2015 at 7:23am

      Totally agree -- Jean is a great, very inspiring person.