Social safety net is very broken

If the government were listening to British Columbians, they would have heard that families are struggling to make ends meet with rising housing costs, childcare fees, MSP premiums, hydro rates, and food costs. The cry of unaffordability is thick in the air, and it’s the symptom of a very broken social safety net taken from under our feet.

They would have heard that over 1,000 people in the highest ever homeless count in Vancouver this year are new to homelessness. Tent cities throughout the province are signs of a housing crisis in all communities in B.C. Affordable housing is out of reach to so many.

But the government hasn’t listened for years.

Every fall, the select standing committee on finance and government services holds provincewide public consultations on what people think should be included in the next provincial budget. And every fall, community groups of every stripe dutifully present or write to the committee. But this year, we won’t be participating.

Not because we don’t need a provincial poverty reduction plan any more. Far from it. Rather, our reluctance comes from the fact that a chorus of voices has been making this call and it continues to fall on deaf ears – not on the part of the committee, but rather the government.

In fact, the bi-partisan committee has recommended a provincial poverty reduction plan for the last three years. And the Union of B.C. Municipalities has unanimously passed resolutions in support of this call since 2009, expressing a strong collective call from local governments for provincial action.

As Einstein said, “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” So let’s shake it up this year.

If the government were listening, they would have heard that people with disabilities really need their bus passes. Faced with an untenable choice, giving up the bus pass for a little more to buy food becomes the only option, and cuts off people with disabilities from community life.

They would have heard that people participating in the Welfare Food Challenge lived on only $18 for food for the week because the average rent of a room in the Downtown Eastside with no bathroom or kitchen is now over $500, and the welfare rate of $610 has not been increased since 2007.

They would have heard that half the people living in poverty in B.C. have a job, or two, or three. In Metro Vancouver, just over 100,000 working people are poor. Not surprising given that the minimum wage is about half the living wage, which reflects the actual cost of living. Work should lift you out of poverty but it doesn’t for so many in our province.

If the government were listening, they would have heard that B.C. has one of the highest poverty rates in Canada, with one in five children living in poverty. Almost half a million British Columbians experience some level of food insecurity. Yet B.C. is the only province without a poverty reduction plan.

They would have heard that other places are saving lives and money with poverty reduction plans. Newfoundland and Labrador reduced food insecurity by 50 per cent by raising welfare rates. Quebec provides universal childcare that takes the burden off families and makes money for the government. With provincial funding, Medicine Hat, Alberta has ended homelessness in their city by building homes.

They would have heard that poverty is bad for all of us. Homeless people die half a lifetime younger. Children in poverty are not growing up happy and healthy. The health of all of us suffers from living in an unequal society. And our province loses eight to nine billion dollars each year paying for the costs of poverty.

So, this year, if you’ve never written to the finance committee, write and tell them what you want them to hear about the poverty, homelessness and inequality in our communities and the need for a comprehensive solution. If you’ve already written before, then don’t bother.

On second thought, let’s all write. Perhaps with an election on the horizon, now is the time for listening. Especially if we’re so loud, we can’t be ignored. We’re stronger together. So let’s all tell the government to listen up!

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

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