Province quietly drops income-assistance ban
A big change, but no bang
Thirteen years ago, the provincial government introduced, with great fanfare, a lifetime income-assistance ban for people convicted of criminal fraud. While geared towards stopping crimes like welfare fraud, research by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) suggests this approach is misguided. The CCPA’s research indicates that people living below the poverty line (people on assistance are below the line in B.C.) resort to crimes like theft and survival sex work in their struggle to make ends meet—welfare fraud is less common. The government lifted the ban this summer with the bureaucratic equivalent of a whimper.
“We were tipped off that there wassome proposed legislation to remove it—we hadn’t heard anything about it,” says Zoe MacMillan, federal disability advocacy project coordinator with Victoria’s Together Against Poverty Society (TAPS), which has helped people underthe ban apply for hardship assistancefrom government. Hardship assistanceis designed as a last resort for people denied income assistance, and the amount of money received is at government’s discretion. Government isn’t legally obliged to provide hardship, however,and recipients must reapply monthly.
The ban, applicable to both people receiving income and provincial disability assistance, was introduced by the newly elected BC Liberal government in 2002 asa way to curb income-assistance fraud. Anyone convicted of income-assistance fraud would receive a lifetime ban. Those convicted could apply for hardship assistance from government, which requires users to frequently reapply for assistance.
Seventy British Columbians were receiving hardship assistance because of welfare fraud convictions when the ban was lifted on August 1, 2015.
The ban was lifted after government received repeated requests to do so during public consultations, according to a A spokesperson for the Ministry of Social Development in an email to Megaphone. The Ministry held those consultations, called Accessibility 2024, with people with disabilities and disability advocacy organizations in 2013 and 2014.
The ministry added the change was originally announced in a Mar. 23,2015, press release about Bill 23, the Miscellaneous Statutes Amendment Act. Frontline staff, agencies, and advocates were told about the change over the summer. Letters were also sent out to the 70 people receiving hardship assistance.
But there were 185 people convicted of criminal fraud and banned from receiving income assistance since 2002. That leaves 115 people potentially unaware they’re eligible to receive income assistance again.
“We’re happy it’s been lifted because it should never have been introduced in the first place,” says MacMillan of TAPS, adding they’d like government to make more of an effort to let people know the ban is over.
In place of the ban, the ministry will deduct $100 per month from individuals caught with welfare fraud. Currentlythe estimated amount fraudsters owe the ministry has reached $4 million. That's 0.02 per cent of the $1.68 billion assistance budget in 2014/15.
On average, the Ministry has recorded 15 to 20 cases of income-assistance fraud annually since 2002. That’s less than one per cent of all people accessing income assistance in B.C. each year. Last year, 175,000 people received income assistance from the provincial government.