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Privilege and empathy: The welfare food challenge confronts us with taboos and truisms

This is the 2nd post by HxBIA Executive Director Wes Regan on his participation in the Welfare Food Challenge this week. For the first post in the series visit here.

In posting images of my $16 worth of groceries to Facebook and sharing that I was participating in the Welfare Food Challenge yesterday I elicited a range of reactions from my friends; from congratulatory to confused to borderline contempt.  When looking at the image of the costs per month spelled out by Raise the Rates at yesterday's press conference some of the comments posted to my Facebook page included:

"Why do they need a cell phone? To call the jobs they don't have?"

"Incidentally - Welfare is not SUPPOSED to be comfortable. If it was, more would choose it as an option"

"If people want to make money, they can 90% of the people on welfare could work, they just don't want to. There are jobs like work farce and labour ready that pay at the end of the day , and provide transportation to and from the work site. All one needs to do is show up. Then they can get any phone plan they like"

I can empathize with the frustration that able-bodied hard working people have towards "free rides" or those who abuse the social safety net. It happens, but all the data points towards this being a very small fraction of overall welfare recipients. What I think taxpayers should be more outraged by is the fact that our money is being handed over to record profit making multinational businesses in the form of corporate welfare, or to spoiled politicians in Ottawa. I'd much rather a single mother who was kicked out of home in her teens receive a portion of my taxes than Bombardier or Esso. Let's get back to those statements though, because they're revealing of feelings or positions that have become more prevalent in Canadian politics and therefore our public policies as the pendulum has swung to the right.

Welfare is not meant to be "comfortable"...let's unpack this one. I respect greatly the friend who made this comment and I know how hard he works. The statement as best I can tell is rooted in common dependency concerns that if welfare rates are too "comfortable" that the incentives to go and find a job will be diminished or destroyed altogether. On that note Switzerland is voting to adopt a guaranteed base national income of $2800 per month to eliminate poverty and decrease inequality. So asking for another $100 or so per month for BC welfare recipients to get their food budget up to what is considered the average healthy grocery bill for a week is by comparison a pretty modest request. Just over $60 per week is what Raise the Rates has compared the $26 we each get to use this week as an indicator of what is generally considered acceptable according to Health Canada.

"Switzerland is voting to adopt a guaranteed base national income of $2800 per month to eliminate poverty and decrease inequality. So asking for another $100 or so per month for BC welfare recipients to get their food budget up to what is considered the average healthy grocery bill for a week is by comparison a pretty modest request."

An excellent example of welfare clearly not diminishing the drive to find work or start a business of ones own is the recent Provincial repealing of "claw backs" which allows those on income assistance to make between $200 to $800 more per month without losing their support. This has allowed some people who were in a welfare holding pattern to actually go out and get a part time job that they could handle and start saving up for a transition off welfare, or deal with old debts, take classes and other things. It has taken a massive weight off some of their shoulders and given them a renewed sense of hope and energy. Like my friend Diane, who has actually put the hard work into starting her own company working with DTES artists and craft makers. She's on disability, is a single mom in the DTES and is one of the hardest working people I know. I would describe her as "industrious" even.

There are some who just simply can't work though, and for them do we as a socially aware and privileged province, country and city, believe that comfort should in fact be provided them or not? And what does comfort look like to us? I would encourage us to feel some empathy here. But there are also pragmatic reasons to alleviate poverty from a fiscal policy standpoint.

There is a difference between being "comfortable" and being undernourished, filled with survival anxiety and placed in a poverty trap where you have just enough to survive. I would hope that at a minimum "comfort" would actually be considered a basic human right in so far as this means the minimum nutritional requirements and a place to live are afforded for by welfare rates, at the very least. Is that enough comfort? Because welfare rates as they currently stand, for those in Vancouver, make you walk the razor's edge between food and shelter in a very precipitous and precarious lived experience.

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