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Basic Income Part II: The Current State of Poverty and Income Assistance in BC

This is the second post in our four-part series exploring the concept of “Basic Income”. Our first post focused on providing background information on the topic.  It prompted more than 60 comments on this site and more than 450 comments on my MLA Facebook page. As a consequence, it is apparent to us that there is broad interest in the idea.

1. Responding to your comments

Our introduction to the concept of basic income received a huge number of thoughtful responses. Many shared their own stories about challenging periods in their lives: time spent living in poverty or on the edge of it, working in precarious or underpaid positions with uncertain futures, and struggling to raise a family or achieve personal goals in this context. We are grateful to everyone who took the time to share their feedback on the idea of a basic income, for the thoughtfulness of the comments and the support and commitment that so many showed to working towards a future that is more just and equitable for all, whether through a basic income policy or other means.

The comments showcased a number of common hopes that people hold for a basic income policy, dissatisfaction with the status quo, and concerns for the risks that a basic income could involve. In this post we will elaborate on some of the themes that we found in the responses, diving deeper into the situation we are in today.

In the responses to our backgrounder, the most widely expressed sentiment was hope in the idea that a basic income policy could end the poverty cycle, eliminate the traps that keep people in poverty throughout their lifetimes and across multiple generations, and treat those in need with greater dignity. In response, in this post we want to focus more closely on the current condition of poverty in BC and our response to it, and highlight how a basic income might offer an alternative solution.

2. Poverty and Social Assistance in BC

We have already highlighted BC’s higher than average rates of poverty, with between 11-16% of adults and 16-20% of children living in poverty, depending on the measure used. Poverty disproportionately affects children and single-parent families: more than half of all children living in single-parent families were living in poverty in 2013, compared to 13% for children in couple families. Aboriginal people, recent immigrants, and people with disabilities are also more vulnerable to poverty.

Estimates of poverty levels differ according to the measure used. The low income measure, low income cut-offs, and the market-based measure are three measures commonly used in Canada.

  1. The low income measure (LIM) is a relative measure, set at 50% of median adjusted household income.
  2. The low-income cut-off  is an income threshold below which a family will likely devote a larger share of its income on the necessities of food, shelter and clothing than the average family. The average family spends 43% of their income on food, shelter, and clothing, whereas families below the low-income cut-off usually spend 63% of their income on these necessities.
  3. The market-basket measure is based on the estimated cost of purchasing a “basket” of goods and services deemed to represent the standard of consumption for a reference family of two adults and two children, including: a nutritious diet, clothing and footwear, shelter, transportation, and other necessary goods and services (such as personal care items or household supplies). The cost of the basket is compared to disposable income for each family to determine low income rates.

Each of these measures result in slightly different statistics, hence the range of numbers used.

3. Details of current social assistance programs

There are a myriad of programs that make up income assistance in BC, specific eligibility requirements, and a complex application process that may include interviews, home check-ins, and mandatory work search periods. In your comments, many of you spoke of the invasiveness, restrictiveness, and stigma of current income assistance programs.

Welfare rates in BC today are $610 per month for a single individual without a disability who is expected to look for work. The rates haven’t increased for nearly 10 years. Advocacy organizations estimate that a single individual on welfare has only $18 per week to spend on food; the organization Raise the Rates recently ran a challenge to illustrate the difficulty of eating on such a small budget. One individual who we spoke with recently shared his personal story of living on income assistance: he is disabled, and so receives income assistance for persons with disabilities, which totals just over $900/month. He wants to return to school to receive training and accreditation, but the strict limits on how much he can save have prevented him from doing so. He is seeking work, but to improve his prospects he needs to get more education, and the claw back of dollars earned has been a disincentive for him to seek out a low-paying job. Furthermore, the affordability crisis has affected him directly: he was evicted because the land on which he lived was being developed into condos, and his new rental unit requires almost all of his income, thus requiring him to rely on food banks for food. He calls being on income assistance “humiliating and constricting”. This individual’s story highlights a number of struggles that many face in trying to move their lives forward while on income assistance.

It’s important to note that many British Columbians living in poverty are not welfare recipients. Working poverty is a growing problem across BC: Vancouver had the second-highest rate of working poverty in the country (behind Toronto), at 8.7% in 2012, although this percentage is likely higher now given the recent affordability crisis affecting the region.  The high cost of living, the low minimum wage, and the growth of precarious employment have contributed to rising levels of working poverty. The minimum wage was recently raised to $10.85/hour, whereas the estimated living wage is $20.02 in Victoria and $20.64 in metro Vancouver. The living wage is what a family needs to cover basic expenses, such as food, clothing, housing, child care, transportation, and a small savings in case of emergencies. It is calculated based on a two-parent two-child family, with both parents working full-time. The discrepancy between the minimum wage and the amount of income required to cover basic expenses leaves many families across our Province below the poverty line.

4. Basic income and poverty reduction

A basic income policy could offer a solution to poverty in BC, if the payments are constructed to ensure that all recipients, in different parts of the province, with different family sizes and different challenges, are able to live above the poverty line. If a basic income replaced our current income assistance programs, individuals in need would no longer have to prove themselves eligible or justify their need for assistance, through completing mandatory work searches, interviews, or home check-ins, for example. Simply falling below the income threshold would automatically qualify you. Replacing our invasive welfare system with a basic income that is framed as an automatic payment program, similar to the tax credits and payments many sections of our society receive today, could reduce significantly the stigma around receiving income assistance. This in itself could have a dramatic effect on the self-esteem and social inclusion of those in need of support. 

One issue that is often brought up in discussions of basic income and poverty reduction is the issue of cost. The cost of a basic income policy is potentially significant but is hard to quantify, since it depends on a wide range of factors, including the amount paid, the eligibility requirements of recipients, and which services it will complement and which it will replace. These factors will be discussed in greater detail in a future post. However, it is essential that, in considering the question of cost, we consider the cost of maintaining the status quo, including the hidden and indirect costs to society of our current levels of poverty.

The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives estimates that poverty in BC costs society $8.1-$9.2 billion annually. This figure stems from the direct costs of social assistance programs to the government, as well as the adverse consequences of poverty, which have significant costs borne by society as a whole. The consequences of poverty include poor health, due to high levels of obesity, alcohol, tobacco and drug use, as well as inadequate nutrition and physical inactivity), high levels of stress and mental health problems, higher than average levels of domestic abuse, low literacy rates, poor educational performance, and high crime rates. The associated costs of these consequences show up through higher usage of public health care, increased policing needs and costs to the justice system, and lost productivity and economic activity. 

As noted in our previous post, the basic income pilot project undertaken in Manitoba showed significant impacts on the healthcare system in particular: it reduced hospital visits by 8.5%. The decrease in hospital visits was attributed by researcher Evelyn Forget to the reduction of stress in low income families, which resulted in lower rates of alcohol and drug use, lower levels of domestic abuse, fewer car accidents, and lower levels of hospitalization for mental health issues. 

Homelessness, which we explored in a series last winter, is inextricably linked to inadequate income for those working and receiving assistance, a lack of affordable housing, and inadequate access to support services. Homelessness has enormous costs to the BC Government, and a number of studies have found that it costs less to directly address the problem of homelessness and invest in prevention than it does to manage homelessness (see here and here, for example). A basic income could provide an integral part of ending homelessness, but it could not completely supplant other social services, such as supportive housing and mental health and addictions services.

The story of youth in transition is similar: as noted in the previous post, a recent report by the Vancouver Foundation finds that paying all youth ages 18-24 transitioning out of foster care a “basic support fund” of between $15,000-$20,000 would result in overall savings to the Provincial Government of $165-$201 million per year, due to the adverse outcomes youth in transition currently experience and their associated costs.

In your comments, many of you raised concerns specifically with the idea of paying youth a basic income without a work requirement, suggesting that doing so could undermine the development of a work ethic or discourage their entry into the work force. Given the range and magnitude of adverse outcomes that youth in transition currently experience, such a concern may not be warranted, or perhaps should not take priority over helping them avoid such outcomes by whichever means possible. Beyond youth specifically, there was a hesitation expressed by a number of commenters that a basic income would provide a strong disincentive for many people to work, and would thus undermine their sense of self-worth and identity. On the other hand, many of you expressed the mirror image of this thought: that a basic income would provide freedom from the constraints and stress that currently plague those on income assistance, allowing individuals to better their lives, go after their dreams and realize their potential. Which version of this thinking we adhere to depends to a great extent on our assumptions about what factors motivate and prevent people from working, and what gives people satisfaction and fulfillment. This issue will be further explored in our next post in this series.

5. Conclusion

We would appreciate further thoughts from you on the state of poverty and assistance in BC and whether you think a basic income could offer a solution. If you’d like to share a personal story or thoughts that you would prefer not to make public, please email us at andrew.weaver.mla@leg.bc.caIn our next post, will explore the future of work, focusing on the rise of precarious employment and the effects of technological advance. We will discuss what these changes to the world of work will mean for all of us, and how a basic income policy might enable us to respond to these changes as a society.

Sharing Stories: Victoria Cool Aid Society – Next Steps

As part of our series on poverty and homelessness we asked people to consider sharing a story about their experiences. Sharing these stories serves as a reminder that poverty and homelessness are not a choice. It’s important for us to end the stigma and stereotypes that are too often associated with these issues. Each of us has followed a different path from the past to the present. Yet some of our paths have been rockier than others.

This week we are pleased to offer the seventh of these stories. We are grateful to the Victoria Cool Aid Society for providing it to us. Working in partnership with others to develop community-based solutions, Cool Aid provides emergency shelter, supportive housing, integrated health care and other support services to those in need.  

Next Steps Transitional Shelter

Helping over 9,000 people in the Capital Region every year, the Cool Aid Society is one of the leading service providers for people who are homeless and is the largest provider of supportive housing outside of the Lower Mainland, for people who have been homeless.

Last year alone, over 1,700 individuals stayed in Cool Aid shelters  and over 4,000 patients received primary health care at the Cool Aid Community Health Centre. Additionally, Cool Aid currently operates 374 apartments for people who have been homeless and this year they will begin construction of Cottage Grove Apartments in Saanich, for seniors who are currently homeless.

Cool Aid’s Next Steps Transitional Shelter, provides an opportunity for 15 emergency shelter clients to access the resources and services they need to get their lives back on track. Such services include housing, employment, financial, life skills and mentorship, as well as physical and mental health services. ‘J’ is one of those clients:

“I have spent seven years of my life on the streets of Victoria, mostly under a bridge. Life was hard, life was cold. I had tried to make the transition from streets to housing before. Unfortunately, I never had the resources to stay in housing nor the skills for the job to pay my bills.

At the beginning of this last attempt to get off the streets I heard about this place called Next Steps run by the Cool Aid Society. What they had to offer was exactly what would help me do the transition properly. I will be attending school while staying at Next Steps. I will be gaining the skill set to get a job that will pay the bills and that I will thoroughly enjoy.

The impact of all of this will be far reaching and impact my life in such a tremendous way. Next Steps is offering a chance to produce positive, outstanding people who used to think they had no chance. Next Steps has a lot to offer me and any person wanting to make the best change one can make. From under a bridge to under a roof.”

Sharing Stories: Our Place – Al’s Story

As part of our series on poverty and homelessness we asked people to consider sharing a story about their experiences. Sharing these stories serves as a reminder that poverty and homelessness are not a choice. It’s important for us to end the stigma and stereotypes that are too often associated with these issues. Each of us has followed a different path from the past to the present. Yet some of our paths have been rockier than others.

This week we are pleased to offer the sixth of these stories. We are grateful to the Our Place Society for providing it to us. Our Place provides an array of services and programs to Greater Victoria’s most vulnerable populations. Serving over 58,000 meals in October alone. Our place has experienced a 62% growth in demand for meals with their new extended winter hours.

Al’s Story

When you first meet Al, you are taken in by his eyes: clear, strong and focused. But those eyes also contain a vulnerability that tells you he is someone who has lived rough, faced difficult decisions, and known pain.

Born and raised in Victoria, Al’s life was turned upside down 11 years ago when he lost his job as a security guard. He admits that he shares responsibility for the loss as, “I was stubborn. They wanted rid of me and I gave them the excuse.”

Unable to find a new job, combined with personal troubles at home, Al ended up on the street. A short time later, his brother, Tom, lost both his job and the place where he was living, and joined Al in the vacant doorways of downtown Victoria.

“I couldn’t stay in the shelters,” says Al. “The snoring and stench of feet was too much. I’d rather sleep on the street.”

Al and his brother staked a nightly claim in a spot with an overhanging roof that helped shield them from the snow and rain.

“It has its ups and downs,” says Al. “Eighty to ninety percent of the people you meet are good, but every day has its challenges.”

One of those challenges was finding a safe place to stash his sleeping bag and extra clothes. “No matter how well you hid it, someone always sniffed it out and stole it,” he says.

The one bright spot in Al’s day was Our Place. “I’d show up every morning for breakfast,” he says. “It was the first place I turned to when I had nowhere else to go.”

The one thing that Al always had going for him was his work ethic. “I don’t ask anyone for anything,” says Al. “I would get up at six in the morning to go bottling, and was usually on my bike until ten at night. Living on the street is boring. You have to keep busy.”

Collecting bottles around Victoria also gave Al a sense of purpose as neighbourhood residents came to know his schedule, and would look out for him hauling bottles and cans on his bicycle.

“Sometimes I would be so loaded down with bottles that people would stop to take my picture,” Al says with a minimal grin. “I even got a police escort to the bottle depot once after a cop saw me piled high with 780 bottles. It was just two blocks, but I’ll always remember that.”

Another memory he’ll cherish is the generosity of some of the friends he made on the route.

“One family gave me a new sleeping bag when they heard mine got stolen,” he says. “Another stuck an envelope with forty-five bucks inside into their recycling bin at Christmas. I tried to return it, but they insisted I keep it.”

Al enjoyed bottling because it allowed him to be his own boss, which was a better fit for his personality. But Al also knew he needed to get his life back on track.

A father of two, who lost his own father at 14, Al wanted a more stable life. That goal became even more important when he took on responsibility for his two young grandchildren.

Always keeping busy, Al was spending more time at Our Place by volunteering in the hygiene area and cleaning up the courtyard. So when the Manager of Housing, John Sherratt, heard Al was ready to make a change, he suggested Al apply through the Coordinated Access to Supportive Housing (CASH) program for supportive housing.

Shortly after moving into one of our 45 transitional units, Al applied and was hired for a custodial position at Our Place, where he has been working part-time for the last four months.

“It’s really helped my self-esteem,” says Al. “And got my morals back on track.”

Having lived on the street for over a decade, Al knows he still has a way to go before he can return to sustainable, independent living. But the staff at Our Place is there to help him succeed by providing more employment skills and planning his progress to less-supported housing.

And as one look in Al’s eyes will tell you, he’s too strong to fail.

Sharing Stories: Society of St. Vincent de Paul Victoria – Rosalie’s Village

As part of our series on poverty and homelessness we asked people to consider sharing a story about their experiences. Sharing these stories serves as a reminder that poverty and homelessness are not a choice. It’s important for us to end the stigma and stereotypes that are too often associated with these issues. Each of us has followed a different path from the past to the present. Yet some of our paths have been rockier than others.

This week we are pleased to offer the fifth of these stories. We are grateful to the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul Victoria for providing it to us. St Vincent de Paul is a non-profit organization dedicated to serving the needs of any person who needs their help.

Rosalie’s Village Spring Start

After almost 7 years of planning, Rosalie’s Village, a Saint Vincent de Paul (SVDP) housing project for homeless women and children, is expected to begin construction in March 2015. Inspired by the saying, “It takes a village to raise a child” the concept of this project is to provide housing and accessibility to the many services the CRD offers to vulnerable women and children. Working with many partners builds community and the confidence to move forward.

The vision is two-fold: to make available safe, affordable housing for young mothers with small children on their journey to independence and the transition into market rental housing; to offer a home to older women coming out of various homeless/at risk situations until they qualify for appropriate seniors housing. Needs assessments reveal that this type of housing is much needed in the CRD. It is estimated the region needs at least 250 supportive housing units and 1,500 affordable/low-market units.

Rosalie’s Village will be a 42 unit housing project which will include an infant/toddler daycare with capacity for 37 children, priority given to residents of Rosalie’s Village. This daycare, Mary’s Place, will provide secure childcare so that their mothers can focus on bettering their lives and those of their children through education and employment. It is difficult to break the cycle of poverty, but it has been identified that finding a home is integral to success along with access to childcare, education and employment. Giving young mothers a ‘hand-up’ will affect subsequent generations in achieving a good standard of living. The children of Mary’s Place will be able to attend free of charge to the mothers through the federal day care subsidy and a top-up provided by Saint Vincent de Paul.

In addition to donating the land, the Society is committed to raising $1.2 million dollars toward this project. To date the Society has raised over $700,000 toward that goal. Pacifica Housing and M’akola Housing will assist with intake and referrals. Other partnerships include the District of Saanich, Capital Regional District, The Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness, CMHC, BC Housing, Joe Newell Architects and M’akola Development Services.

In order to achieve the goal of transitioning to independence, several programs will operate from Rosalie’s Village. There will be resident support workers who will develop a plan with each tenant to map out a road to independence. This will be a case managed agreement between the Society and the tenant and may involve attending high school or college or beginning a career path. Placement and the transition to seniors housing for the older women will also be done with the assistance of the resident support workers. As well there will be a Social Concern Office in the building where tenants can access services include work training programs, women’s day programs, life skills training, an income tax program etc. All of the foregoing services are already funded by the Society through donations and sale of goods at the six Victoria area thrift stores.

The Society has almost 100 years of experience providing support to those in need through home visits throughout the Capital Regional District. In fact, SVDP is celebrating its 100th anniversary of service on Vancouver Island in 2016. Our home visitors would extend this support to assist the tenants of Rosalie’s Village, offering a variety of supports including the donation of food and clothing and advocacy in accessing local services.

The Society is counting on the support of Victoria residents and accepts donations in person, by phone, by mail, or over the Internet. More information is available on the Rosalie’s Village website: http://www.rosaliesvillage.ca/ 

Rosalie’s Village web site is www.rosaliesvillage.ca  

Our Society web site is www.svdpvictoria.com 

We also have a facebook page https://www.facebook.com/ssvpvancouver?ref=aymt_homepage_panel

Spreading awareness also really helps and “I Support Rosalies” buttons are available and can be ordered through our administration office at 4349 West Saanich Road, Victoria, BC Canada (250) 727-0007 or info@svdpvictoria.com

Sharing Stories: Mustard Seed — Poverty and Food Insecurity

In our most recent post in our series on poverty and homelessness we asked people to consider sharing a story about their experiences. Sharing these stories serves as a reminder that poverty and homelessness are not a choice. It’s important for us to end the stigma and stereotypes that are too often associated with these issues. Each of us has followed a different path from the past to the present. Yet some of our paths have been rockier than others.

This week we are pleased to offer the third of these stories. We are grateful to The Mustard Seed for providing it to us. Entering into its 40th year of operation, the Mustard Seed is a non-profit organization providing many crucial services to those in need.

This post looks at the shift of non-profit food in Victoria, highlighting the connection between food provision and supportive programing, and the emergence of the Greater Victoria Food Share Network.

Food insecurity: The state of being without reliable access to sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious and culturally appropriate food.

Food insecurity is one of several issues facing low-income communities in Greater Victoria, constituting one of the many facets of poverty that The Mustard Seed is working to eliminate. Through the creation of a micro food system within the organization through the production and distribution of food, followed by the composting of organic waste, The Mustard Seed does food banking well.

Our Drug and Alcohol Recovery Program at Hope Farm Healing Centre produces local, organic and fresh foods such as produce, eggs, and meat products that local businesses and non-profits purchase. Those in the program are supported in their recovery through the reconnection to land and to their food through farm work and the harvest season. Our food bank then distributes that fresh food along with all the other fresh and non-perishable foods we purchase or receive through amazing donations.

But it’s not enough to grow and distribute food when engaging with the all the complexity of poverty. The provision of food is not enough to say, find someone a place to live or help someone find suitable employment. Food helps, but it’s not enough. How do we do food banks differently in Victoria to engage positively with all the facets of poverty? How do we move away from that “Band-Aid” and emergency service, to food provision that also somehow helps someone find an affordable place to live? Or receive additional training or education to get a suitable job? How can we as food banks help those who come for support start making those positive steps out of the cycle of poverty and achieve food sovereignty?

Food banks were never set up to do this. They were a “stop-gap” with a sunset clause, meaning they were to close when food insecurity was solved. So far food insecurity persists. So as non-profits with mission statements about breaking the cycle of poverty we need to socially advocate for more government investment into long-term solutions like affordable housing, but also innovate on traditional ways of “doing” food banking to start reducing and eliminating poverty. Food banks can’t do this on their own and there is so much that needs to happen to achieve this, but here in Victoria something is shifting. Creative steps are being taken towards breaking the cycle, and to achieving food sovereignty. It’s happening through honest dialogue, collaboration, creativity and hard work.

The emerging of the Greater Victoria Food Share Network, a collaborative group of non-profits to which The Mustard Seed is a member, are moving away from traditional ways of “doing” food banks, steadily shifting away from the “emergency food” model, to one that connects food insecure individuals to their local neighborhood houses, community centres and non-profits, all of whom have supportive programing that food banks don’t. Further, food banks need to innovate better supportive programing on site addressing the root causes of poverty, like the Mustard Seed’s Family Centre focussed on skills training and capacity building for parents.

The connection of food provision and supportive programming, both going hand in hand, is transitioning from 7000-8000 people all heading down to the local food bank to line-up for food, to folks walking across the local park in their own neighborhood to collect an increasingly healthy and nutritious food hamper. Then they are provided with opportunities to participate in programs such as skills training, child care, employment programs and information on access to more affordable housing.

This is one of many collaborative initiatives of the Network and one small step towards a newly emerging way of “doing” food banks or perhaps more appropriately called “food access” in Greater Victoria. It’s not just about giving out food. It’s about the provision of healthy and nutritious food that creates connection. That creates opportunities. That’s done with dignity and respect. And most importantly that breaks the cycle of poverty. Because if we’re not doing that, then we’ll always have food banks. And who wants those?