photos: Forty-five per cent (nearly half) of all Canadians who live below Statistics Canada's low-income cut-off are actually employeed full-time. Photo: Jackie Wong.

To push past the poverty line, more change is required

"People living in poverty no longer see the Ministry of Social Development as a place where you go for help."
-Stephen Portman, Together Against Poverty, Victoria

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It’s almost impossible to support oneself, nevermind a partner and family, on a minimum-wage job that pays $10.25 an hour.

But in the Capital Regional District (CRD) on southern Vancouver Island, scraping by with very little is something many families face, whether they're making minimum wage, on income assistance, or working jobs that barely crack the living wage. Thirty-five per cent of all two- parent, two-child families don’t make the region’s family living wage of $18.90 an hour. And nearly 50,000 people—that’s 13 per cent of the 360,000 people living in the region—earn below the poverty line.

Poverty among the working poor is widespread on Vancouver Island. “But it’s even worse for people on income assistance, also known as welfare,” says Rupert Downing, executive director of Victoria’s Community Social Planning Council. Despite the fact that the cost of living has gone up over the past eight years, income assistance rates haven’t increased since 2007. “There has to be a phased increase in the income assistance rates and the disability assistance rates,” he says.

Last month, the B.C. government announced small changes to the province’s minimum wage and to income assistance for families.

Starting in September, the province will index minimum wage to B.C.’s Consumer Price Index and make it retroactive to 2012. That means minimum wage will go up to $10.45 an hour. Serving wages will increase to $9.20 an hour. For families on income assistance, there’s a $200 increase on earning exemptions. That means families receiving income assistance can now earn up to $400 in addition to their government payments. If they have a child with a disability, families can earn up to $500.

As well, the new Single Parent Employment Initiative covers tuition and books for a 12-month training program for an in-demand job, in addition to transportation and full- childcare costs for single parents on income or disability assistance.

Those funding announcements arrived on the heels of a February announcement that the provincial government would stop clawing back child support from parents on income or disability assistance.

But those changes are too small and are not indexed to pull people out of poverty, says Downing. Besides, he says, they were bound to happen eventually.

“At some point, somebody would have made a complaint to the Supreme Court about those regulations,” he says. “And the B.C. government realized they would have to deal with that situation to avoid a really high cost in legal fees.”

Downing would like to see both B.C.’s minimum wage and income assistance rates doing more to lift people above the poverty line. Another Cascadian city has done it, he says: Seattle city council voted to increase the citywide minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2018.

And there are systemic issues that the new minimum-wage and income-assistance changes fail to address. Downing notes that 45 per cent—nearly half—of all Canadians who live below Statistic’s Canada’s low-income cut-off rate are actually employed full-time.

For people without jobs, “there is no way for people earning [B.C.’s] level of income [assistance] to be able to acquire the assets” necessary to find employment, says Downing. That includes accessing transit, job training, or business capital.

Government estimates more than 10,600 families are eligible for the earnings exemption increases announced last month. Yet Stephen Portman, interim executive director of Together Against Poverty Society in Victoria, says less than eight per cent of people on income assistance make additional money.

“And if they do, it’s rarely to the maximum level,” he said. “Most people are on income assistance because their number-one challenge is earning money.”

Portman wants B.C. income and disability assistance rates significantly increased, then tied to the Consumer Price Index. But in order to solve poverty for people earning an income, he believes we need a national poverty line that no one should be able to slip beneath without the federal government topping up their income.

The alternative is what Portman sees as an increasingly unhelpful government system. “People living in poverty no longer see the ministry of social development as a place where you go for help,” he says. “It’s a place that protects the public purse and makes you feel inferior for needing supports.”

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