Premier Gordon Campbell established himself as a friend of the rich with the lavish cuts in provincial income taxes announced in June, but all he has to offer the poor is more misery.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the cuts to welfare foreshadowed in the new "service plan" for the Ministry of Human Resources--a complete reversal of a clear pre-election promise not to cut welfare rates. For the 246,000 children, women and men who relied on welfare at last count, the new arrangements touted by the provincial government can only mean extreme hardship and despair.
Fighting government deficits on the backs of the poor is shameful at best. Financing tax cuts on the backs of poor kids is outright despicable. There were 82,498 children who depended on welfare as of September 2001--fully one-third of all the people on welfare. What public purpose can possibly be served by depriving these children of what they need to grow up safe and healthy?
Like the government of Mike Harris in Ontario, the BC government is prepared to slash welfare rates that are already far below what any reasonable person would consider adequate. And like the government of Ralph Klein in Alberta, the Campbell government is prepared to purge the welfare rolls--in part by imposing arbitrary two-year limits on welfare entitlements for some categories of recipients.
The income support provided by welfare in British Columbia has dropped significantly over the last two decades. In a recent report, the Social Planning and Research Council of BC estimated that the welfare income of a single employable person, for example, was only 45 percent of the amount needed for daily living.
Among the changes planned by the Campbell government are fairly widespread cuts in the support allowance portion of welfare and selected cuts in the shelter allowance portion. The cuts in the support allowance work out to $69.36 a month for a single parent with one child. Single employable people aged 55 to 59 will lose $46.92 a month, and single employable people aged 60 to 64 will lose $97.92. Among employable couples without dependent children receiving welfare, those aged 55 to 59 will lose $93.84 a month, and those 60 to 64 will lose $144.84.
Employable people who have a bit of earned income will no longer be able to keep the first $100 or $200 of earnings each month without having their welfare cheques reduced. Single parents whose ex-spouses make maintenance payments will no longer get to keep the first $100 a month of those payments.
And if all that doesn't make Gordon Campbell look like Scrooge, the province is taking away the free bus passes of poor seniors.
The second overarching feature of the BC Liberal approach to welfare lies in reducing the employable caseload, allegedly by helping welfare recipients find jobs. However, at a time when jobs are already hard to find, this is more like throwing welfare recipients to the wolves.
The proposed two-year limit on welfare in any five-year period is obviously borrowed from welfare programs in the United States--programs that have not yet been thoroughly and objectively evaluated by people with no political axe to grind.
Similarly, there appears to be no serious study behind the decision to consider single-parent mothers employable as soon as their youngest child turns three. It is difficult to see any benefits accruing from this change to either child or parent in the absence of affordable and appropriate child care and a generous array of other supports for employment.
All in all, the welfare changes make a mockery of the promises of better government heard repeatedly from Campbell and the BC Liberals during the provincial election campaign last spring. Instead of reasoned and responsible changes in government programs and services, what we see is slash and burn. And the province's most vulnerable citizens are among the main victims of the government's post-election glibness and indifference.
Steve Kerstetter is a freelance social policy consultant in Vancouver and a research associate with the BC Office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. He retired in 2000 as director of the National Council of Welfare in Ottawa.