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NDP follow through with promise, raise B.C. welfare, disability rates

Rob Shaw, Postmedia Network

B.C. NDP Leader John Horgan conducts a town hall meeting at the Pan Pacific Hotel in Vancouver, May 1, 2017. (Arlen Redekop/Postmedia Network)

B.C. NDP Leader John Horgan conducts a town hall meeting at the Pan Pacific Hotel in Vancouver, May 1, 2017. (Arlen Redekop/Postmedia Network)

VICTORIA — Premier John Horgan announced Thursday his government would follow through on a campaign promise to raise welfare and disability rates by $100 a month.

Horgan said the increases will take effect with the Sept. 20 assistance payments.

“Lifting families out of poverty starts with raising income assistance rates and assistance for people with disabilities,” Horgan said in a news release.

“Raising the rates is only the beginning. Our government is committed to bring forward a comprehensive poverty reduction plan to lift children and families out of poverty.”

The disability rate will be $1,133 a person, and the income assistance rate will be $710 a person.

The party also promised during the election to index disability rates to inflation and to increase earning exemptions by $200 a month so that people on assistance could take home more pay from jobs before having their payments reduced.

However, Thursday’s announcement did not include those measures.

“The piece that is not here is the earning exemption. There’s some more work to be done on that and I’ve got the ministry staff working on that now,” said Shane Simpson, the minister of social development and poverty reduction.

Indexing disability to inflation also requires “some technical work to be done,” he said.

“We saw this opportunity to take this first step and it was pretty straight forward to do that,” Simpson said of the increase. “The premier wanted to move quickly on this so this was one of the very first orders-in-council signed by the new government.

“I signed an order-in-council (on Wednesday). It’s probably the first piece of official business I’ve done.”

The cost of the increases will be $180 million a year, said Simpson.

The B.C. Liberals had frozen the welfare rate for 10 years, though more recently had offered a small increase to the disability rate in response to criticism for clawing back disability bus passes.

Social groups had long accused the Liberals of being social assistance misers, and praised the NDP for an increase. Yet with housing costs soaring, the amount is not enough to make a real impact in the lives of the poor, said Kell Gerlings, community organizer with Raise the Rates coalition.

“It’s not really a bold or exciting step,” said Gerlings. “That makes the total for a single person on social assistance $710 a month and if you look at the numbers of that, the average rent for an SRO (single room occupancy) in the Downtown Eastside is $548 a month.

“This increase by no means drastically reduces poverty or drastically changes many of the conditions people are living in right now. Of course, we’re not going to say don’t raise the rates, any increase is welcome. But in order for us to see the paybacks of reducing poverty, … the assistance rate needs to be at $1,500 a month.”

Simpson said he’ll sit down with ministry staff next week to start work on a poverty reduction plan, which will include legislation. The NDP also promised, as part of its power-sharing deal with the B.C. Greens, a pilot project for a guaranteed income to see if it would reduce poverty and improve health outcomes.

rshaw@postmedia.com

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