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Welfare Rates Should Be Set to Allow for Simple Dignity

By Trish Garner, originally published on The Tyee

Let the government know that you value and respect the humanity of others.

I recently had a heart scare and, since then, I have been to the emergency room twice, had three ECGs, worn a 24-hour monitor, seen my family doctor multiple times and had two appointments with a cardiologist. Not once did I feel that the care of my health was anything less than 100 per cent. In contrast, care for those on welfare is at the low of 43 per cent in relation to the poverty line.

Care did not stop halfway through my health care, it continued until the doctors were able to reassure me that I am fine and healthy. Care for those on welfare stops well below the poverty line, leaving those on welfare far from being fine and healthy.

Those who recently finished the Welfare Food Challenge, which took place over the last week from Nov. 1 to 7, have now experienced a glimpse of that. Participants were challenged by the advocacy group Raise the Rates to eat only the food they can buy for $19 during the week.

Why $19? Well, the B.C. government now provides $710 a month to a single person, (minimally better than the $610 rate that had been frozen for over 10 years), and some basic costs are then taken away from that: housing, cellphone and bus tickets to look for work, and a small personal hygiene budget for toilet paper, tampons and laundry soap.

Leaving only $19 for food for a week. That’s simply not enough to survive. It’s definitely not enough to be healthy; if people on welfare don’t start out sick, they get sicker while on welfare because they cannot eat a healthy, nutritious diet.

It is good to have a government that recognizes that the recent $100 increase to welfare is merely an incremental step, but where’s the end of the road?

What would an adequate income be for someone who has hit a rough patch in life, whether it is a work accident, serious health issue, renoviction, or fleeing domestic violence?

Statistics Canada’s Market Basket Measure (MBM) is a good starting point. It is “based on the cost of a specified basket of goods and services representing a modest, basic standard of living” and includes the actual cost of housing, food, clothes and shoes, transportation, and household needs by size of community in B.C. For a single person in Vancouver, it is approximately $20,000 per year and, for a family of four, it is just under $40,000.

Setting welfare at that threshold, which is still very low, would provide a rate of $1,665 per month. In comparison, B.C.’s current rate of $710 is less than half that, only 43 per cent of the MBM poverty line. The MBM level would allow a person to live with dignity and give them a chance to bounce back from that rough patch. It would be a step in rebuilding our social safety net that has long been in tatters.

If we are willing to stand by and watch while the government gives another human being $710 per month to live on, (or more accurately, to die on), then I have to conclude that there is something more important to us as a society than respecting another person’s dignity and right to life.

Maybe it’s money that’s more important to us. Often we hear that we cannot afford to increase welfare rates. But (even if you don’t know that it actually costs more to deal with the consequences of poverty than it does to prevent poverty), ask yourself, is that an adequate reason to leave people sleeping on the street? Do you choose money over the dignity of your fellow human being? What so-called “economic factors” take precedence over life?

Perhaps we blame people in poverty and think they deserve it. Notwithstanding the multiple reasons someone may find themselves in poverty, the same kind of argument can be made for healthcare: why should we pay for the health consequences of someone who chose to smoke, for instance? But, instead of barricading health care and only treating people who have made the “right” choices throughout their lives, we have decided to have faith in the vision of universal health care.

Only about 50 years ago, we shifted from thinking of our health as an individual responsibility to thinking of it as a collective responsibility. Yes, our healthcare system has gaps but the fundamental principle is respect and dignity for all, something that we are deservedly proud of.

Instead, for those in poverty, our community response is to give to the food bank. Imagine if we did the same for health care: I have some band-aids to donate and I could probably rustle up some ibuprofen. It’s absurd but that’s exactly what we’re doing in the face of the huge issue of food insecurity.

I never imagined that I would have a heart scare at only 40 years old just as most of us do not imagine that we will end up on welfare, but I sure am glad that our universal health care system was there when I needed it.

How about we start building universal poverty reduction so that it’s there for those who need it now and for when any one of us may need it in the future? Now that’s something we could be proud of.

So, next time you pass someone sleeping on the sidewalk in this cold and wet November, I ask you to do one seemingly simple but often hard thing: please recognize that person’s dignity. Let the government know that you value and respect the humanity of other people and want our welfare system to be an expression of that.