Jean Swanson: Let's make 2018 the year to end poverty

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      After five years of helping to organize the Welfare Food Challenge I gave it a try this year, trying to eat for a week on only the food that $19 can buy. I figured it out so I would be eating things I like and that were easy to prepare.

      Breakfast for a week would be oatmeal, cooked with water, not milk as I usually do because I have osteoporosis and need the calcium (like some people on welfare). Plus I’d have one cup of milk to partly pour on the cereal and to wash down my morning vitamins (suggested by my doctor and not counted in the $19--cheat #1). 

      Lunch would be a peanut butter sandwich and a cup of vegetable juice. Supper would be roasted potatoes and carrots with some garlic and a egg. That came up to $17.59.  

      I didn’t have anything green and there was no fruit. So it wasn’t really a healthy diet but not too bad for a week I thought.

      The first day was ok. The second day I was obsessed with food. I have a life with a lot of meetings with people in coffee shops. I went with a cup of water and hoped I wouldn’t be kicked out for not buying anything. I went to Sunrise market and bought a bruised apple for 20 cents. $1.20 left.

      The apple was delicious. "I’ll try to get a piece of fruit each day for the remaining days with the $1.20," my rational self said. But on the way home from the bus, it seemed like a giant magnet was pulling me into the gas station/coffee shop where I emerged with a $1.05 apple fritter, coated in delicious sugar.

      It was downhill from there. I ate a meal at my family’s house on the weekend, to be social. And then when I forgot to pack a sandwich for work, ended up doing Chinese food for lunch at another meeting.

      The last couple of days, with the Challenge over, I’ve been gorging on peanut butter cookies, spaghetti, and fruit. My friend who has been homeless says that this is what you do when you have no money. You eat when you can, as much as you can.   

      But this isn’t about me.

      I got to quit after a week .

      It’s about nearly 42,000 precious human beings who have to depend on social assistance of $710 a month. For everything. Who can even find a place to rent for $710?  

      Our new provincial government has a poverty reduction committee and it’s consulting people about ways to reduce poverty.  

      I hope it’s using this committee to build support for actually ending poverty, not entrenching it or reducing it a little bit. I hope it’s not using the committee to stall on taking the obvious actions we desperately need. I hope it’s not going to be afraid to tax the rich to get some money to raise welfare rates and build thousands of units of social housing.  

      Because people are literally dying of poverty.  

      You can see it in the streets of nearly every town in B.C. where people are homeless and have about half the life expectancy as others—because welfare isn’t enough to pay for housing and food and because housing is just too expensive.  

      There is really good research that shows that ending poverty actually costs less in the long run, than maintaining it.

      According to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives: “The bottom line is that poverty in BC represents a direct cost to government alone of $2.2 to $2.3 billion annually, or close to 6 per cent of the provincial budget. The cost to society overall is considerably higher—$8.1 to $9.2 billion, or between 4.1 per cent and 4.7 per cent of BC’s GDP (Gross Domestic Product, or the size of our economy). That is as much as $2,100 for every man, woman and child in BC, or $8,400 for a family of four, every year. In contrast, the estimated cost of a comprehensive poverty reduction plan in BC is $3 to $4 billion per year.”

      We don’t need study and consultation to tell us that welfare rates and minimum wages are too low or that housing and childcare are too expensive. We need action now to end a lot of suffering and early deaths. It will take some upfront money which the government could get by taxing people who have a lot.

      Let’s make 2018 the year that B.C. ends poverty.

      Jean Swanson is an antipoverty and social justice activist, former city council candidate, and writer.

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