The BC office of the CCPA released today a major study about life on welfare for the poorest of the poor. It tracked a cohort of welfare recipients for two years and tells the tales of how they have interacted with a nasty and mean-spirited welfare system, and also the challenges they face as people in getting and holding work when BC is essentially at full-employment. The study reveals the lives of people who, in many cases, are damaged goods, but who should not be thought of as disposable. It also does a good job of telling the stories we need to hear in order to develop some empathy for the lives and struggles of the poorest, who are too often voiceless in today’s society.
Here’s the press release (full study here):
A ground-breaking study that for two years followed British Columbians living on welfare paints a disturbing picture of how people are forced to make ends meet under new welfare rules and low rates. … Living on Welfare in BC: Experiences of Longer-Term “Expected to Work” Recipients followed 62 people from Vancouver, Victoria and Kelowna.
Among the key findings:
- Much of day-to-day life on welfare is about survival – a constant and frequently unsuccessful struggle to look after basic needs for food, shelter, health and personal safety – making the task of seeking employment hugely difficult if not impossible for many.
- The study establishes an important connection between welfare rules and homelessness. Throughout the study, almost one third of participants reported having no fixed address at some point in the previous six months.
- Welfare benefits are too low. What emerges is a welfare system that is structurally dependent on food banks and other charities in order for people to meet basic needs.
- Far too many people are being cut off of welfare, almost always inappropriately. Seven people in this study were cut off assistance at some point during the two years. Yet none were in fact job-ready, and all struggled with serious addiction and health issues. Once cut off, all lived on virtually no income, were homeless, and most resorted to illegal activities. Cutting these people off is not helping them or society at large.
- Many people remain inappropriately categorized in the basic “Expected to Work” welfare category for far too long. Many of those in the study were ultimately re-categorized with Person with a Disability (PWD) status or as having other barriers to employment. The good news: these people receive slightly higher benefits. The tragedy is that it took so long for people to be re-categorized – minimally two years, and frequently much longer.
- A disturbing number of women in the study either returned to or remained in abusive relationships or engaged in prostitution to make ends meet.
- Only a small fraction of the participants in this study left poverty. Those who remain on assistance remain very poor, even if re-categorized. Those forced off even more so. And while those who shifted from income assistance to the labour market were better off, most are still below the poverty line.
“We focused on people who had been on social assistance for an extended time and who were officially categorized as ‘employable.’ We looked at how they experience the new, tougher work-obligation rules and the hardships they experience,” says Professor Jane Pulkingham, Chair of Sociology and Anthropology at SFU, and co-author of the study.
“This study included many people who never get covered by other studies. As a result, it reveals important new insights about many of society’s most marginalized members,” says Seth Klein, report co-author and director of the CCPA-BC Office.
By following participants for two years, the study was able to compare the experiences of those who stayed on welfare, those who left voluntarily, and those who were cut off of assistance. Students from Simon Fraser University, University of Victoria, and UBC-Okanagan stayed in touch with participants every month, and conducted interviews every 6 months, over the study period.
“The government likes to say declining welfare caseloads is purely a good news story, but it has never done adequate studies that would allow it to make such claims,” says Klein. “So we decided to delve deeper. We wanted to learn more about why people leave assistance, and what happens after they leave.”
Among this study’s policy recommendations are the following:
- Welfare benefit rates must be significantly increased and indexed to inflation.
- The government must make a commitment to categorize welfare clients appropriately, and in a timely manner.
- The regulations and administrative practices that permit people being cut off, even temporarily, must be revisited – they are too arbitrary, are applied inappropriately, and cause unacceptable hardship and harm.
- More meaningful supports must be provided. If more people are to move from welfare to work, they must be provided with housing, help with addiction and health problems, and a level of individualized education and employment supports that can make this possible.
“We urge the provincial government to change its overarching goals, away from a narrow focus on welfare caseload reduction, and move instead to the broader goals of poverty reduction and elimination, and health promotion,” concludes Pulkingham.