Social security rates for B.C. poor slammed as MLA ends welfare month hungry, broke
Advocates of raising financial aid for the poor renew social security appeal as Surrey MLA Jagrup Brar ends a 31-day experiment living at welfare levels – $7 in debt and 12 kg lighter. Poverty, he said, is a health and safety crisis.
Call it a poverty diet – but poverty is a matter of health and safety, a B.C. politician argued. After living for the month of January on $610 – welfare's financial aid for a single employable person – Surrey MLA Jagrup Brar found himself not only $7 in debt, but 12 kilograms (26 lbs) lighter.
Today, the seven-year New Democratic Party (NDP) politician woke up in his home, with his own family, whom he had only been allowed to visit once a week – and even had to pay them for his meals.
Dressed in plain black shirt, faded jeans and blue baseball cap, Brarremoved his well-worn work boots for a weigh-in. The scale didn't lie: after only 31 days in soup kitchen line-ups, a cramped single resident occupancy (SRO) room, and even dumpster diving, the strikingly tall MLA had dropped from 108 kg to 96.5 kg.
“That diet is available to anyone,” joked a man from the back of the boisterous room in a Powell Street co-op housing common room, to laughter from many Downtown Eastside (DTES) residents attending his farewell speech and press conference yesterday.
“At this rate of losing weight, in nine months he would completely disappear,” joked veteran anti-poverty advocate Jean Swanson. But the message of Raise the Rates, the group behind Brar's month-long 'Welfare Challenge,' was dead serious.
Affordable housing and food out of reach
“Christy Clark: the government needs to raise welfare rates,” Swanson said. “A welfare rate of $610 a month, with a 100 per cent claw back of all earnings, is not supporting people to look for work ... It's supporting people to get sick, it's supporting people to suffer, it's supporting people to have crisis after crisis, to get depressed, and to lose hope.”
Thanking Brar for being the sole MLA to accept her group's challenge, Swanson added that the B.C. government's other social assistance rates – including disability and families with children – are also unacceptably low.
“Jagrup figured out in two weeks here in the Downtown Eastside what other politicians still don't know, but that we've known for years,” she said. “The rates are too low, we need housing, SROs are like homelessness, and this is a caring community.”
During his parting speech, Brar paused, seemingly overwhelmed by emotion, as he described some of the lessons learned from his month on $610 – half of which was spent in his hometown, Surrey; the other half in a BC Rooms apartment in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.
“I accepted the challenge just to tell a story – to tell the story of communities in B.C. living in poverty,” he said. “The experiences I've gone through in the last month were life-changing for me and life-changing for my family.
“I have met single mothers, refugees, people from First Nations ... and many more. I have listened to their stories – their stories are very powerful. There were times that I came really close to tears. I don't think that human beings should have to live that way – but that is happening right here.”
Brar confessed that when the time came to move into a Downtown Eastside apartment – in which all he had was a single bed, sink and shared bathroom down the hall – he arrived with fears about the infamous neighbourhood – and the poorest off-reserve community in Canada.
“I want to be frank with you,” he said. “When I came here, I came with my fears.
“I came with my fears about how you were going to accept me or not. You changed my perspective – very much so. The love, care and respect you have shown to me, I have never seen anywhere else.”
Brar was thanked for accepting the challenge by a series of residents who had shared their experiences on government assistance with him over the previous weeks, some of whom presented him with artwork.
“Watching him go through it, and leading him around, I could see he was learning a lot of things,” Stuart Fraser, who lives in BC Rooms and has been on $610 welfare for nearly two years, told the Vancouver Observer. “He was a good student.
Working people falling into welfare system
“I want to see the end of claw backs. That's minimum," he said. "Especially for women and children. I want to see better housing – that's number one. We have to raise the rates – we have to. $610, boy – many people spend that on one night to go watch a hockey game. It puts it in perspective.”
Fraser explained that he was self-employed until getting sick – without Employment Insurance available, he resisted applying for welfare as long as he could but was left with no other choice.
“It's been less than two weeks since I got my cheque, and I'm very frugal,” he said. “I've only got 10 bucks left. I don't do drugs, I don't drink.
“I've been on welfare, but it's very hard to get off. They make it almost impossible to get off with the barriers they put up.”
Those barriers, Fraser said, include the government cutting benefits if a welfare recipient earns any income, even if it is only from temporary employment. It is also difficult to get training in new skill-sets or take work-related courses without government assistance.
“It's gotten worse,” he said, noting that welfare rates were cut back in B.C. over the last few years.”
Struggling as a parent on welfare
Another government assistance recipient told the Vancouver Observer that benefit claw backs have hit her and her child hard.
“In September, I took on my son, who was with his dad,” said Brenn Kapitan, who lives on disability assistance since she developed spinal arthritis four years ago. “His dad's paying child support, and then (the government) took back the child support.
“They audited me two weeks before Christmas. Now I owe the money I'd been overpaid and I get less funds. It's pushing people down who are already in a (crisis) situation.”
Kapitan was waiting in a food line-up earlier this month when Brar arrived at the Carnegie Centre, a community hub at Main and Hastings Street. She said the politician embarking on the 'Welfare Challenge' gave her hope that someone in power might listen to her community's struggles.
“The attention he's received has been substantial on an old problem that's existed from day one.
“What he's doing is showing where we can really improve, and he's listening to a lot of people like me – who have skills, but something happened and you get caught in between and don't have the support of family.”
Kapitan added that his challenge would have been far greater had he brought his children along for the month.
“He's the only person who'd want to voluntarily live on that,” she said. “Nobody wants to hear a sob story, they only want to hear when you're winning.
“(For most people), you're on your own, so you struggle the best you can. It's one thing for (Brar) to write in his journal and eat really crappy food, but it's another thing to turn to your kid who's looking to you for guidance for the future – for giving them the moments they'll remember to tell their children – and saying, 'Oh, this is all we ate today.'"
Raise the Rates campaigner Bill Hopwood said that Brar revealed what most people in poverty have known all along: that people in B.C. can't live on the current welfare rates.
“We know that if we said, 'You have to bring your children on that journey, no MLA would do it,” Hopwood added. “No MLA would put their children through what Jagrup has been through.
“Although 137,000 children in British Columbia go through that every day. Their parents don't want to put them through it but they have no choice because that's the welfare rate. All the welfare rates are too low.”
Hopwood said that poverty and inequality affects all British Columbians, not just the poor. Citing Statistics Canada figures suggesting that poor people live on average 10 years less than other Canadians, Hopwood argued that the costs of not ending poverty are high on the system.
“When I show friends around this city and they see people begging, and see people on the streets, they ask me, 'What is wrong with this country?'” he said. “We are a rich country, one of the richest in the world, and yet we have people sleeping on the streets, people begging.
“And I feel embarrassed ... It's an enormous waste of people, of talent, of resources.”
Hopwood added that the larger issues of inequality need to be addressed, not simply his group's immediate demands of more housing, a $12 minimum wage, and increased social assistance rates.
“There's a wider issue: inequality does enormous damage, not just to the poor, but to the middle class,” Hopwood said. “Inequality hits everybody.
“By tackling poverty – raising the rates, raising the minimum wage, and we would say by taxing the rich – we'd eradicate the problems of poverty, but we'd also increase the equality in society, which would actually make this province a better place to live.”
Brar said he would take the stories he heard to the Legislature in Victoria and to the NDP caucus, in hopes of making policy changes to target poverty. He said he was humbled to be welcomed into the DTES community – and said that, four or five times, local residents tried “forcibly” to give him money, thinking he was going hungry.
But the Surrey MLA ended his farewell speech with an apology.
“I want to apologize to the people who lost their lives because of poverty,” he said, pausing heavily before repeating himself.
“I want to say sorry to them – that we can't provide them the resources to live full and healthy lives.
“I promise you, wherever you are, that I will work hard.”