The Problem with Income Assistance in BC

Several years ago the BC government brought in tightened rules for those who receive income assistance (aka welfare). Part of the new rules were around fraud. Fraud was divided into categories. Clients who purposely set out to commit fraud and who pleaded guilty could face a ban on receiving assistance for the rest of their lives. At first glance, this seems to be a somewhat reasonable but nonetheless punitive change in legislation. Obviously the intent is to penalize those whose fraud is so massive that a lifetime ban is the only reasonable consequence that can be imposed. These cases exist but they are few and far between.

Now there is the case of Justin Mitchell. He was on Persons with a Disability (PWD). He has fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. He has struggled with his own addictions to alcohol and drugs. Apparently, he submitted a fraudulent confirmation of employment letter so that he could receive an additional $250. He pleaded guilty to his fraud and he has been ordered to pay the money back. Later he received a letter advising him that he would no longer be able to receive assistance for the rest of his life.

I think we can all agree that people should not commit fraud. People on income assistance are often caught between a rock and a hard place. Being forced to live in paltry sums of money committing fraud is sometimes the only way people have of meeting their expenses. Some work under the table and don’t declare the earnings, some access other resources that the Ministry of Housing and Social Development (MHSD or the ‘ministry’) is not aware of, some receive help from friends and family etc. All of these things would also be fraud. In essence the ministry sets people up to commit fraud.

The ministry is aware that they are setting up this situation. One of the things they do is to look at someone’s expenses and if they are over and above what they are entitled to on income assistance they are given a short amount of time to rectify the situation or they will not get any assistance. Rent is often the expense that is targeted. Given that the ministry only gives people $375 for rent it is very difficult for people to manage. To be fair, they will allow rent to be somewhat higher but if it encroaches too far into support money pointed questions are asked about how they are managing to eat. The way this is justified is on the grounds that people must be committing fraud to manage their high rent so therefore they are not entitled to assistance. If you then factor in expenses like cell phones, car insurance and cable there is no way people can survive on income assistance.

Justin Mitchell was trying to live on $906.42 a month. It should be noted that he was receiving disability rates. An employable single person would receive $610 per month. That amount is supposed to cover all of their expenses. Plus they are expected to be looking for a job. How can they do that when they can’t even afford bus fare.

The entire income assistance is corrupt. There is very little administrative fairness as clients are treated differently by different workers. How they even came to know that Justin had committed the fraud is questionable. As a former worker, I can tell you that the confirmation letter should have been verified prior to money being issued. It seems clear that if Justin received the money no one verified the letter. Had the ministry done their job and verified the letter then the money would never have been issued and there would not have been a fraud.

So we have a system that forces people to live on substandard amounts of money and it expects them to do so honestly. Recipients must report every bit of money they received and if they are employable it is all deducted dollar for dollar. Employment and Assistance Workers are over-worked. The workload has increased exponentially since I started in 2000. By the time I left in 2007, most workers could not keep up nor do a sizable number know policy well enough to implement it fairly. The rates are so low that recipients often have to choose between food and paying the rent. There has got to be a better way.

Did hell freeze over and no one told me?

I was looking at the new online application system for Income Assistance and I was shocked to find out that they had changed their choices for gender. Here are the choices as I remember them:

  • Male
  • Female
  • Transgender Male to Female
  • Transgender Female to Male
  • I prefer not to stay

I could not believe it when I read it. Government institutions move at a glacial pace. Not only have they expanded on the traditional binary categories, they have differentiated between trans folk. Plus they have further acknowledged that gender can be a private issue for some people.

This move is a monumental step forward for trans folk but also gender outlaws. The binary gender category has been with us forever. In fact we organize so much of our world into binary categories: good and evil, black and white, God and Satan, etc. It really is the basis of how we organize things in our minds. This is an extremely important first step in the Ministry of Housing and Social Development becoming a much responsive organization.