Living on Welfare

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.


  • Thanks for the insightful article. Having had to resort to welfare from time to time, it really is just geared for “basic” survival and for many it can be a revolving door because the only employment available without degrees or certificates are temporary or very low paying part time service industry jobs.

    I think it would be the best investment to open doors for higher education so the poverty trap can be beaten once and for all.

    There should also be better support systems for the mentally ill or those with addiction problems. Homelessness only excaberates these issues.

  • tina lagrotteria

    I want to see people on welfare receiving
    more income support for shelter and
    support. They are not receiving enough money
    and there is alot of evidence to show this fact.

    No one should be cut off this is cruel and

    I have observed a better attitude towards
    people on Welfare and it is thanks to people
    who are standing up and speaking up.

    I think for a long time no one spoke up but
    now the Ministry must have realized everyone
    has Rights under our Canadian Constitution.

    The arbitrary system fights with people, and
    people fight back. This is what they want,
    and they enjoy it. This is very childish and
    the clients no longer want any part of it.
    They have the Right to Peace in their lives.
    They have had fun fighting with everyone on
    the system for years. Unpleasant and
    mean system. What do you think it does to
    people. People who need help, and be
    friendly that means all the staff and don’t
    think yourself too smart, some people are
    alot brighter than you who are on welfare.
    You never know who you are talking too!!!

    It is the policies that need to change, glasses
    are costly and people receive about $114.00
    for a pair, glasses today in 2008 cost from
    $250.00 to $300.00 and this has not increased.
    What are you waiting for???

    Dental Care should be paid in full by the Minister
    where that client has Zero dollors to disbourse
    out of his own pocket. Not enough money!!!

    People with Disabilities do receive enough money
    per month to meet all their needs. Many
    have special needs not covered, plus need
    help with grocery shopping, housekeeping,
    washing, and so on. Raise their rates
    and not by $50.00, the $50.00 amount
    is what they call HELP, that is crap, it’s
    saying here is what I am giving you, that’s it
    not my problem. Not a good way to help people.

    Finally, do what you should of done years ago,
    raise the rates. Richmond said NO!!!
    He knows what he wants…but he doesn’t
    want to know what these people really need.

    I wonder what Coleman thinks, likely the
    same old mode of thinking. It’s unfortunate
    but I really believe that the next generation of
    brighter persons will do a much better job
    at helping all people on welfare.

    The stereotyping about people on Welfare
    is garbage, people on welfare are good people.
    Yeah, there are people with big issues like
    drugs, alcohol, and this exists also amoung the
    Rich and Wealthy, so shut up!!!

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