Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Welfare too low, Campbell says, but no action promised

Gordon Campbell has discovered that the province's low welfare rates are hurting people and communities.
A bit late, in terms of the poverty problem in the province, but still welcome.
Or it would be, if there was a clearer sense that the government is prepared to do something about it.
Campbell's epiphany has come as more and more British Columbians are being thrown out of work. They are either unable to access employment insurance benefits or have used up their benefits.
The next step, for those who qualify, is welfare.
Campbell is pressing the federal government for two main reforms to employment insurance. Most attention was paid to his call for a uniform standard across Canada. Right now, people in high unemployment areas can get benefits after fewer weeks of work and for longer periods than those who lose their jobs in low unemployment areas. A laid-off forestry worker on north Vancouver Island, for example, can collect benefits for up to 47 weeks. In Victoria, benefits last 43 weeks. In Cape Breton, 50 weeks. The number of weeks required to earn eligibility are also lower in areas where unemployment is greater.
That's wrong, says Campbell, especially now. There is no place in Canada where it's an easy matter to find new work. Treatment should be equal. Some regions would lose, and some gain, under a standardized system.
But Campbell went farther in his pitch for change.
It's important to head off a flood of out-of-work people falling on to welfare, he said. The federal government should reach a deal with B.C. The province will send chip in what it would have spent on welfare on each person; the federal government should add money to that and keep them on employment insurance for up to two years.
Why? Campbell made the case in an op-ed column in The Globe and Mail.
"Income assistance is clearly the last social safety net into which any worker wants to fall," he wrote. "Not only are the monthly benefits often less than those payable under EI, but those who are forced to go on welfare risk entering a cycle of dependency that is tough on families, communities and our economy."
He's right. An employable single mom with two school-age children on welfare receives about $650 a month, plus up to $660 for accommodation. (Where can a family of three live in this region for $660 in rent?) That's $150 a week for food, clothes, transportation, birthdays, everything for three people.
But Campbell's government has maintained this is adequate and touted successful efforts to help some people find work.
Now, he's not sure.
"The reality is that as long as a worker is on EI, they tend to have more hope about their eventual job prospects and the temporary nature of their predicament," he wrote. "Many workers are now faced with the reality or prospect of exhausting their EI benefits - and they're scared."
And what they're scared of is a "bleak" financial future and the chance they will "wind up on welfare."
Campbell is right about the bleakness and hopelessness of life for many, or most, welfare recipients in B.C.
And his bid to try and get the federal government to top up welfare payments, at least for new recipients, is worth a try. The Harper Conservatives have proven willing to step up with taxpayers' dollars to meet regional deeds, as the automakers' bailouts have shown.
But, as Campbell points out, there is only one taxpayer, whether the money comes from the federal or provincial government.
The government has kept rates low because a "bleak" existence was an incentive for diligent job hunts.
Campbell acknowledges diligence isn't enough right now. It's hard to see a justification for deciding some unemployed people deserve additional income, while leaving others to suffer under income assistance rates the government acknowledges are destructive.
Footnote: It's a bold move for Campbell, who has followed a policy of playing nice with whoever is prime minister. Further EI changes have been rejected by Harper and supported by the federal Liberals. The B.C. government's bid for reform and additional benefits is bound to strain relationships at least a little.

1 comment:

Dawn Steele said...

Wait a minute - What Campbell is really saying is that people who can't find work due to the latest downturn are basically decent people who deserve a decent cushion, whereas those who were unable to work before are slovenly bums who deserve nothing better than the miserable, impossible existence that his own provincial welfare system so grudgingly affords.

If he were not making such an ugly value judgement between those who face long-term vs short-term barriers to employment and self-sufficiency, why wouldn't he just increase welfare rates for all instead of asking Ottawa to increase EI.

He holds all the power he needs to solve this problem and he's not the one already shouldering a $50 billion deficit. And after all, as he notes, it's the same taxpayer picking up the bill.

Apart from trying to pass the buck to Ottawa for what is in effect our own problem and his own responsibility, Campbell's solution has another utterly cynical angle. It would allow him to avoid higher provincial deficits and welfare stats, both of which would provide ample political fodder to mock his oft-touted claims to superior economic management.