Friday, June 05, 2009

B.C. worst for child poverty for sixth year

The good news is that fewer B.C. kids were living in poverty in 2007.
The bad news is that the “Best Place on Earth” has the highest child poverty rate in Canada, according to Statistics Canada.
Worse, perhaps, is the fact that despite six consecutive years of that dismal distinction, poor children — children generally — weren’t mentioned much in the provincial election campaign.
That bothered Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, the legislature’s Representative for Children and Youth. Turpel-Lafond, the first representative appointed after Ted Hughes’ damning report called for an advocate and watchdog for children and families, was hoping for more.
“I was quite disappointed with the fact that the situation for children was not a central issue,” said Turpel-Lafond. It’s not just child poverty, she noted. There are also the grim stats for aboriginal children, on indicators from health to education to their over-representation in government care, and a list of other issues.
Instead, Turpel-Lafond said the campaign seemed to focus on the leaders’ personalities, with a nod to the economy and the environment as issues.
Based on her travels and contacts with British Columbians, Turpel-Lafond says the politicians are out of touch. The public cares about issues affecting children and expects non-partisan action.
That’s what she’s hoping for the new session. The representative reports to a legislative committee, which was supposed to be working for children and youth but too often bogged down in politics — “The government side was there to defend and the opposition side was there to attack.” She’s hoping all MLAs — especially the chair and vice-chair — will set aside past differences.
The need for effective action is greater now. Turpel-Lafond says the situation for children has deteriorated with the economy. Services like legal aid and family court are underfunded and demand is mounting.
But often, she says, the focus seems to be on managing the way the public views issues rather than actually tackling the problems.
There’s another risk as government looks at spending cuts to reduce a deficit soaring far beyond the budgeted $495 million. The Ministry of Children and Families was to get a 1.8 per cent budget increase to cover this year and the next two. Not 1.8 per cent a year; that’s the total increase over three years to cope with increasing caseloads and rising costs.
“The bottom line is when you cut services and programs there is one group affected more than anybody — poor people,” Turpel-Lafond says. “Poor kids get hurt.”
Which leads back to child poverty. If you want to predict children’s futures, don’t look at IQ, where they were born, age of parents, gender, race or any other factors.
Look at family income. Poor kids start in a deep hole.
You can have an interesting debate about how to define poor or low income. Statistics Canada uses the low-income cutoff (LICO). If a family spends more than 70 per cent of its pre-tax income on shelter, food and clothing, it is low income.
On average, an urban Canadian family of four with a total pre-tax income of less than $40,000 is considered low income. That’s two parents, working full-time at $10.25 an hour. Which sounds poor to me.
Across Canada, 9.5 per cent of children live in poverty. In B.C., 13 per cent of children do. Since 2001, B.C. has had a higher proportion of children living in poverty than any other province.
That was through, for the most part, pretty good times. As the economy worsens, more and more children fall into poverty.
Yet the provincial government has no plan specifically aimed at reducing child poverty. There are no targets or timelines or accountability measures.
Turpel-Lafond says there is nothing mysterious or magical about improving life for children in B.C. “We know what to do, we just aren’t doing it.”
The needs are greater than ever before. We’ll know in the next few months how seriously the government takes its responsibility.
Footnote: The representative’s role, as recommended by Hughes, includes monitoring and reporting on the ministry’s progress. The next update is due soon.
The impression from outside is that the ministry continues to struggle; the report should provide a decent briefing paper for whoever succeeds the retired Tom Christensen as minister — the fifth person to hold the job since the Liberals were elected.

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.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Oppal’s defeat, independent MLA a chance for progress

It’s good news that Wally Oppal was defeated in Delta South, at least barring a new result from a judicial recount. That sounds harsh, I suppose. Oppal is pleasant. His reputation as a judge and in the community is good.
But he was an ineffective cabinet minister. After four years as attorney general, accomplishments are scant to non-existent. The list of unaddressed issues - gang violence, lobbyist legislation, FOI reform, court delays and costs - is long. Oppal often seemed out of touch, as if he hadn’t even read the summaries of reports that other ministers would pore over.
So, objectively, his departure from the scene isn’t really a bad thing. And the election of an independent MLA, that’s a great thing. Oppal lost to Vicki Huntington, the first independent elected in 60 years. The voters in Delta South - or 43 per cent of them - decided they didn’t want a representative tied to a party. They thought Huntington could represent them in the legislature, using her own good judgment.
It was a big slap at Gordon Campbell and the Liberals. In a 1999 byelection, at the NDP’s nadir, only 433 voters - one in 40 - supported the New Democrats. This should be a Liberal riding. But it wasn’t, despite a supposed star candidate. The election of Huntington is encouraging. No party leader or communications staffers will tell her what to do or say or how to vote. She only has to think about her constituents and her conscience. After a decade watching the legislature from the press gallery, that strikes me as a very fine thing.
MLAs are good people. That’s why they get elected, because the voters back in their ridings respect them and think they will do a good job representing them in the legislature.
And then they lose their minds. Not all of them, but most. They shout and heckle, like schoolyard goons, in question period. They reduce complex issues in the lives of the people who elected them to talking points. Huntington doesn’t have to do that. She can speak for the people in Delta South, not a political party.
The result is an aberration, admittedly. The people in Delta South feel profoundly betrayed by the Campbell Liberals. They’ve seen farmland lost, hospital problems, new highways and unwanted power lines. And their Liberal MLA, Val Roddick, has been perceived - in the classic description - as the party’s representative in the riding, not the community’s voice in Victoria.
It would be wonderful to have the most of the 85 MLAs in the legislature thinking about the people back in their ridings, not the other MLAs or the leaders’ offices or the communications staff and strategists.
That’s the chance Huntington has.
It will be challenging. The New Democrats and Liberals have caucus budgets. Huntington can expect to be shut out. It will be lonely, but liberating, to be outside the clubs.
And the main parties should respect the voters’ choice and ensure Huntington is called on in question period, gets committee assignments and has a full chance to do the job.
The results are a good wake-up call for the political parties. Delta South was supposed to be safe Liberal seat, especially with Oppal as the candidate. The voters disagreed. That’s good. The voters pay MLAs $100,000 a year. They are entitled to strong representation. If Roddick had been allowed to fill that role and represent constituents’ interests, especially on local issues, then Oppal would likely be preparing for a second term as attorney general today. Our system is based on parties and adherence to a set of share broad principles is required.
But that doesn’t need to mean that MLAs must shuffle along like zombies behind the party leaders.
It won’t be easy. But British Columbians should be rooting for Huntington. She has the chance to change politics for the better. F
ootnote: The pundits are predicting a tough time for Huntington as an independent and questioning her effectiveness outside a party. But there are many advantages in her position.