Welfare Food Challenge should challenge us to ask “who benefits?” from poverty

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      By Deanna Ogle and Earyn Wheatley

      Could you live off $21 in groceries a week?

      In B.C., a single person on social assistance receives $610 a month. This amount is inadequate by any standard.

      Raise the Rates BC organizes a Welfare Food Challenge every year to challenge the myths surrounding poverty as well as to broaden the conversation around the inadequacy of current welfare rates.

      When thinking about taking the Welfare Food Challenge this year, we talked about our fears. Both of us have direct experiences of poverty when growing up and as young adults living on our own. These experiences involve welfare, low wage work, precarious housing, and scrambling to make ends meet.

      When you are living in poverty, the grocery store becomes a site of inequality. Walking through the aisles is a frustrating experience with thousands of reminders of things you cannot afford. There is an inability to make healthy choices or participate in the broader dialogue that surrounds a lot of ethical or sustainable food purchases. A pound of organic fair trade coffee would have eaten up half of our food budget.

      Earyn works as a mobilization campaigner with Greenpeace and Deanna is the campaign organizer with the Living Wage for Families Campaign. We both see issues of climate change, food security, and poverty as deeply connected, although they don’t always seem that way when talking about government policies or the price of groceries at the store.

      In our conversations, one thing struck us both. Just as the Canadian government doesn’t have a meaningful definition of poverty or a federal poverty reduction strategy, there is no federal government strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to necessary levels. Both issues have been transferred to provincial and territorial responsibility and we see a patchwork of policies as a result of this inaction.

      Who benefits from this lack of action? Broadbent Institute research indicates that B.C. is the most unequal province in Canada. The richest 10 percent own 56 percent of the wealth while the poorest 50 percent own only three percent. Any strategy that would move Canada away from reliance on boom-and-bust resource extraction must also include reducing wealth inequality.

      According to the CCPA-BC, the federal government provides about $350 million in subsidies to the fossil fuel industry each year and returning corporate taxes to a 2006 level would raise $6 billion a year. These examples of subsidies and tax cuts have been happening while the members of the public are tightening their belts and accepting a withdrawal of the federal government from public housing.

      The federal government has been evading responsibility for poverty by placing social assistance and minimum wage rates in the hands of the provinces and territories. Although there are federal standards for issues like health care there is no federal definition of poverty and no consequences for provinces that do not meet the needs of the most vulnerable.

      We have seen incredible victories when people have worked for change. This past election saw record high numbers of voters saying they wanted a change in the status quo. There is a growing awareness that we are currently experiencing the impacts of climate change and that the traditional ways of reacting to problems will not be enough. Solutions to the climate crisis must tackle inequity and poverty.  

      As we pondered our choices in the grocery store, the leading factor in our decision-making was “what can we afford”? However, as a society there is a cost to all of us for limiting the choices of over 170,000 British Columbians on welfare to food that neither sustains them or the environment. We must work so that healthy, sustainable food choices are available to all of us.

      Take one step by signing the petition calling for an increase to the welfare rates in B.C.