OPINION: The poor are forgotten again

In B.C. Budget 2017, the provincial government continues to ignore the crisis of poverty and inequality in B.C. In fact, if you search for “poverty” in the budget document, there is not one single mention of this issue, despite B.C. having the second highest poverty rate in Canada and one in five children living in poverty. The plight of almost 600,000 people in B.C. is overlooked once again.

So what did the government “give back”?

A meagre $50 a month to people with disabilities. In monetary terms, this simply restores the bus pass amount clawed back last year when there was a shift from the annual program of $45 per year to a monthly charge of $52 per month. However, my guess is we will continue to see people with disabilities give up their bus pass in favour of the small increase, and we will all lose through the exclusion of people with disabilities from our communities.

Almost two-thirds of those on income assistance in B.C. are people with disabilities (PWD) and they will likely spend their lives on these deeply inadequate PWD rates. This is not a gift but a lifetime of poverty.

For those on basic welfare, there was not even a token gift. Those struggling to survive on $610 per month get nothing, despite the rate being frozen for a decade now. And we all know how much the cost of living has increased in that time as unaffordability becomes the rallying cry throughout B.C.

If the government truly expects people on welfare to transition back into employment as they say in their response to this rate freezing, the best way to help would be to raise the rates. Welfare is a life of daily survival – often hours spent lining up for food, shelter, showers and other basic needs – not putting your best foot forward and heading out to job interviews. It’s hard to imagine bouncing back – perhaps from a health issue, workplace accident or domestic abuse situation – when you are plunged into such deep poverty through our broken social safety net.

As for the other “gifts” from the government, don’t be distracted by the glitter of the MSP premium cut. This is a step in the right direction toward restoring tax fairness, and we are thrilled to see a commitment to eliminate MSP premiums in the future. This is a move that we, and many of our member groups, have been advocating for as it’s the most unfair tax, hitting middle and modest-income people much harder.

But the MSP cut changes nothing for the poor, who were already exempt from MSP.

And we need to keep sight of what we have lost through this so-called gift: nearly $1 billion in revenue, money that could have been invested in really tackling poverty. The provincial government could have made our tax system fairer without decimating our public purse (by off-setting the MSP cut with tax increases for upper-income people and corporations).

Strikingly, there were no new investments in addressing the affordability of housing and childcare, the two biggest costs facing families across B.C. And our public education and health care continue to get short shrift, despite government’s claims to the contrary. The amounts announced in this budget don’t make up for years of underfunding.

With the MSP cut, the government is now telling us that they’re listening. Well, if they were really listening, they would have acted on the recommendations from their own finance committee for many years now: launch a comprehensive poverty reduction plan; increase welfare rates; provide affordable housing and universal child care; and adequately fund education and health care.

Simply put, this budget gives band-aids, not long-term security.

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The next couple of months leading up to our provincial election on May 9 offer an opportunity to ask our candidates to truly listen to the needs of British Columbians, and tell us how they will tackle the issues of poverty and affordability through a collective vision that leaves no-one behind.

Trish Garner is the community organizer of the B.C. Poverty Reduction Coalition.

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