VICTORIA - Imagine two poor families living side-by-side, both with incomes of $18,000 a year and two young children.
That's not enough money to allow adequate housing in B.C. today, Forest Minister Rich Coleman said this month. Parents are forced to cut back on essentials, including adequate food for their children, to pay the rent. So the government launched a housing subsidy program to help poor families cope and ensure that their children get a fair start in life.
Everyone with children under 19 and an income under $20,000 is eligible for help.
Unless they are on social assistance. Those people are specifically excluded.
It's a bizarre decision. The program is supposed to be about children. Coleman said children from poor families are falling behind in life and in school because of inadequate nutritrition and other problems. The government launched the housing subsidy to to help them, he said.
But not if the children's parents are on welfare.
Coleman couldn't explain the decision. His best effort so far has been notably lame. People on social assistance already get a housing allowance, he said.
It's a non-answer. The issue, as Coleman acknowledged, is the income the family has available to provide for their family and the shelter allowance is part of that income. And housing allowances for people on social assistance haven't been increased in 12 years and are totally inadequate.
None of this is to knock the subsidy program, which is a small, useful initiative. Families with income below $20,000 can apply for a rent subsidy of up to $260 in the Lower Mainland and $182 in the rest of the province. The $40-million program could help up to 15,000 really poor families.
People on welfare qualify as a really poor. A single mom with two little children and "multiple barriers to employment" has an income of $18,200 a year. If the government hadn't barred her from the program, she would be eligible for a housing subsidy of about $90 a month. A single parent with one child on social assistance has an income of $14,060, enough to qualify for a subsidy worth about $140 a month.
It's enough money to make a difference in a poor family's life.
So what does the government have against those children?
Perhaps the government believes that life on social assistance should be miserable so people are motivated to find jobs or move away.
But that goal has been achieved long ago. In real dollars, welfare rates are 15 per cent lower than they were a decade ago. A parent with two children is allowed a maximum of $550 a month for housing, the same level as 1994, a. A pregnant woman is allowed - at most - $580 a month for housing, food, clothes, utilities, transportation and everything else. Figure a realistic $450 for housing and she is left to live on $30 a week for everything else.
It's a wretched existence and people are highly motivated to escape. About 100,000 people are on social assistance today, down from a high of 360,000 a decade ago. Many have moved into jobs, a good news story; a minority ended up on the streets. More than two-thirds of those left are on disability benefits or have what the ministry calls "persistent multiple barriers to employment." They are not quickly going to move into the workplace.
Or perhaps the government just doesn't like people on welfare and doesn't believe they - or their children - are worthy of help.
It's an alarming thought. But how else to explain a policy that offers aid to one family getting by on $15,000 a year, in the interests of their children, and denies it to the family next door with the same or a lower income?
Children are children. They all deserve compassion, help and a decent chance at life.
But the government has decided that some children in B.C. just don't matter as much.
Footnote: There is a myth that people on social assistance receive a wide range of benefits that might justify denying them the housing subsidy. The reality is that - rightly - government has done much to ensure that the working poor receive similar help with prescription drugs, MSP premiums and other costs.