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Critics upset B.C. government didn’t raise welfare rate in budget

B.C. Finance Minister Michael de Jong delivers a balanced budget for a fifth year in a row at Legislative Assembly in Victoria, B.C., on Feb. 21, 2017.

CHAD HIPOLITO/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The B.C. government billed its fifth consecutive balanced budget as a chance to spread the wealth, but critics say that generosity failed to stretch to those living on social assistance, who have not seen an increase in the provincial welfare rate in a decade.

British Columbia has the third-lowest welfare rate among the provinces at $610 per month, ahead of only New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. While the budget, released Tuesday, included money for those on disability, the welfare rate remained untouched.

B.C. Finance Minister Mike de Jong, in releasing a budget Tuesday that forecast a $295-million surplus, indicated the province's focus is less on raising the welfare rate and more on what it can do to return people to the work force.

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When asked what his message was for people living on welfare, Mr. de Jong said: "That we are anxious to ensure that you have the best opportunity possible to return to what you want to do, which is be part of the work force. That we are anxious to work with both individuals and the private sector to ensure that the job opportunities are out there because no one wants to be on temporary assistance or welfare."

Mr. de Jong told reporters he did not want to "diminish the challenge" people on welfare face. But he said not raising the rate was the decision the province made "in terms of allocating the finite resources we have."

He said the province does expect to see "caseload pressures," as more people who have lost their jobs in other parts of Canada move to British Columbia, where the economic climate has been stronger.

The Liberal government's decision not to raise the welfare rate was met with immediate and familiar disappointment by advocates.

"Who can live on $610 a month?" Jean Swanson, a volunteer with Raise the Rates, a group that advocates for a higher welfare rate, asked in an interview.

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Ms. Swanson said many of the people who are on welfare simply can't find work.

Alex Hemingway, public finance analyst at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives B.C. Office, said British Columbia is the only province without a poverty-reduction plan and the welfare rate is "miserably low."

"Nobody can plausibly live on $610 a month and it's an embarrassment," he said in an interview.

Mr. Hemingway said his organization has been calling for a 50-per-cent increase to the B.C. welfare rate.

"But it's been so long since we've seen an increase, that may even be insufficient at this point. We're not in a situation where we can't afford to do that so there's really no excuse," he said.

Mr. de Jong said the steps the province has taken to assist people on welfare include the Single Parent Employment Initiative, which allows single parents to continue receiving income assistance while also training for a long-term job.

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Last week, the province announced it would increase disability assistance by $50 a month, or $600 a year, at a cost of $199-million over three years. The rate for a single person will increase to $1,033 from $983.

The budget outlines $796-million intended to "support families and individuals most in need," including the increase to disability rates. That figure also includes $175-million to address caseload pressures for those seeking temporary income assistance, disability assistance and related supplementary benefits.

The province said $135-million will go to provide support for individuals with developmental disabilities and their families, primarily through Community Living British Columbia.

The remaining $287-million will go to the Ministry of Children, with $147-million aimed at reducing waiting lists and strengthening programs.

Another $120-million will go to addressing the recommendations from a report on indigenous child welfare by Grand Chief Ed John, with the money directed at family supports and reunification, culturally appropriate services, and additional staff within indigenous communities.

The province also pledged $20-million to create up to 2,000 new child-care spaces.

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