(Vancouver) A major study released today finds that BC’s welfare system is systematically discouraging, delaying and denying assistance to many of the people most in need of help, with harmful consequences for some of the province’s most vulnerable residents.
"Denied Assistance: Closing the Front Door on Welfare in BC" examines why the number of people receiving welfare has plummeted in the wake of changes to eligibility rules and the application system, and looks at what is happening to people who seek and are denied welfare. It is the first in-depth assessment of the new application system, drawing on data obtained through Freedom of Information requests and extensive interviews with people who have applied for welfare, front-line community advocates and Ministry workers.
“The provincial government says its policies are a success. It claims that more people are leaving welfare for work, and that the new application system is ‘diverting’ people to employment,” says Bruce Wallace, Researcher with the Vancouver Island Public Interest Research Group (VIPIRG), which undertook the study with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA). “This is true for some people. But our research found that many others are being ‘diverted’ to homelessness, charities, survival sex and other forms of hardship.”
“BC’s welfare application system is broken,” says Seth Klein, the CCPA’s BC Director. “It has become so restrictive, so complicated to navigate, and so riddled with delays and discouragements that people in need are being denied help. Policies like the three-week wait and the arbitrary two-year ‘independence’ test have been used to meet the government’s caseload and budget reduction targets, not to help people get jobs.”
The study finds that in some cases, delaying and denying people welfare reduces their ability to be self-sufficient. “Lack of assistance forces people to focus their time and resources on meeting basic shelter and food needs, rather than looking for work,” says Wallace. “When people go to welfare, they are usually already in a very difficult situation. The three-week wait policy — which often ends up being a four- to six-week wait in practice — leads to greater debt and likeliness of eviction.”
Debra Critchley of the Vernon Women’s Centre is shocked by the situation in her community. “We are seeing a growing number of women who have been denied welfare and are turning to survival sex as a way to make rent or put food on the table for their children.”
Susan Henry, with First United Church in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, says the number of people sleeping in the church continues to climb. “Many of the people who come through our doors have a hard time navigating the system and advocating for themselves, so even if they are actually eligible for welfare they end up turned away. Without the help of an advocate, they would have little chance of getting welfare. But even with help, the rules and timelines are so tight, sometimes there’s nothing I can do, or a file gets closed before I can intervene.”
The government claims that the shrinking caseload is due to more people leaving welfare for employment. However, the study finds that the decline is due to fewer people going on welfare — that it’s a front-door story. According to data obtained through Freedom of Information requests:
- In the first year after the new welfare rules were introduced, the number of applicants who began to receive benefits dropped by 40% (from 8,234 ‘entries’ or ‘starts’ per month to just 4,914 entries);
- The number of ‘exits’ also fell, but only slightly (from 8,388 per month to 7,631);
- The acceptance rate for those who apply for welfare has dropped dramatically from 90% in June 2001 to 51% in September 2004.
The CCPA and VIPIRG are asking the Auditor General to undertake an in-depth review of the province’s welfare system to determine if the current system is meeting the needs of British Columbians. The study calls on the government to end the arbitrary two-year independence test and the three-week wait immediately, and to re-design the welfare application system so it helps individuals in need.
“Even people who may never need welfare understand that it’s important to the wellbeing of our province and communities,” says Klein. The CCPA commissioned a poll with Ipsos Reid earlier this month. It found that 89% of British Columbians agree that access to welfare when in need should be a right for all British Columbians.
Numerous additional experts and community advocates are available for comment, including Judy Graves (City of Vancouver Homeless Advocate) and individuals in Prince George, Kamloops, Kelowna, Vernon, Victoria.
The study is available at www.policyalternatives.ca. To arrange an interview, call Shannon Daub (x226) or Avi Goldberg (x229) at 604-801-5121.
“Denied Assistance: Closing the Front Door on Welfare in BC” is part of the Economic Security Project, a joint research initiative of the CCPA and Simon Fraser University, funded primarily by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).