Poverty is not cheap. It costs B.C. an estimated $9 billion each year.
It would take only two-thirds that amount to eliminate poverty by raising incomes, advocates say.
“Half of the poor in B.C. are either the working poor or the children of the working poor, so if we simply increase their wages, it would go a long way toward (eliminating poverty),” said Seth Klein, director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA). “In a society as wealthy as ours in B.C., with an annual GDP of about $250 billion, by what logic can’t we close a poverty gap of $6 billion?”
Leaving families mired in poverty is expensive. It typically leads to higher health care costs, a greater burden on the criminal justice system, lost productivity among women who can’t work, and lower income tax revenue to governments. Those costs adds up to between $8.1 billion and $9.2 billion each year in B.C., according to a 2011 study by the CCPA.
To bring every B.C. resident’s income up to the poverty line through a combination of higher wages and increased government payments would cost much less — about $5.8 billion, Klein said.
A basic annual income guaranteed by government is one possible solution to poverty, said several people interviewed for this series, including business leaders and academics. Anti-poverty proponents are also calling for a living wage, which in pricey Metro is estimated to be $20.64 an hour based on both adults in a family of four working full-time. (B.C.’s minimum wage is $10.85.)
The B.C. Business Council is examining the pros and cons of various guaranteed annual income models. In Ontario, a three-year pilot project will give participants about $1,320 a month and allow them to keep some earned income as well. The program will look at whether the extra money provided by government improves the recipients’ health outcomes, encourages work and reduces stigmatization.
This province has the highest inequality in Canada, the B.C. Poverty Reduction Coalition says, with the richest 20 per cent of residents earning 10 times the poorest 20 per cent. “The inequities matter as much as the poverty,” said John Millar, a professor emeritus at UBC and a former provincial health officer.
To truly address this inequality, advocates say, B.C. needs a poverty reduction plan that includes better jobs, more affordable housing, low-cost child care, and increased support for training and education.
So, why do impoverished people need society’s help to end their hardship? Because, experts say, getting a job is increasingly not the solution to poverty in this expensive province.
Nearly one in 10 people in Metro Vancouver is considered working poor — someone who earns an income lower than the poverty line, which Statistics Canada says is less than $41,866, after taxes, for a family of four.
Jeremy Brawn is a welder, a job that was the government’s poster child for the trades shortage just a couple of years ago. Despite his specialized skill, he is paid only $18 an hour. He also has a weekend job washing semi-trucks for $16 an hour, to catch up on support payments for an older child.
Brawn was making ends meet when he had a $23-an-hour job in Alberta, but was laid off when the economy there collapsed. That forced him to move into his parents’ B.C. home, while his baby and wife lived with her parents. He searched for a year for an affordable apartment where the family could live together — he just found one in Aldergrove for $950 a month.
Brawn has foregone his own meals to make sure his two kids have what they need. “I have always put my wife and kids first, no matter what,” he said, adding it is difficult for his wife to work because she has uncontrolled epilepsy.
The federal government helped families like Brawn’s last year when it introduced the Canada Child Benefit, a tax-free cash payment of up to $6,400 a year. Jean-Yves Duclos, Canada’s minister of families, children and social development, hopes the initiative will reduce child poverty by 40 per cent by year’s end.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gave the minister a mandate to create a national poverty reduction strategy, expected by the end of 2017. Duclos told The Vancouver Sun last year that he would develop this strategy using provincial poverty reduction plans, and was surprised to learn B.C. doesn’t have one.
B.C.’s provincial government says it doesn’t need an official plan to reduce poverty. Jobs minister Shirley Bond maintained all government policies, including high job creation, are designed to improve the lives of vulnerable residents.
Hessed Torres says a few tweaks to government policies would mean a big financial improvement in her life. The 30-year-old makes $2,000 a month — about $10 an hour — as a nanny.
Torres, who came to Canada from the Philippines in 2014 as part of the live-in caregiver program, is grateful for her job working 9.5 hours a day looking after a two-year-old girl. But she wants to work a second job to earn extra money, and that is forbidden under the terms of her federal work permit.
After paying rent and sending money to support her six-year-old daughter in the Philippines, Torres doesn’t have much left each month. “I find myself short every time,” she said.
Fluent in English, Torres is a trained nurse — a job in high demand in B.C. — but her degree from the Philippines is not easily transferred here. She would like the next government to make that process easier and increase minimum wages.
The provincial government says it is protecting British Columbians with its high standards for recognizing foreign credentials, but added it has created programs to evaluate the qualifications of high-demand professionals, including nurses, doctors, engineers and tradespeople.
Many of these social issues are expected to be hot topics when the election campaign begins April 11. Polling for Postmedia in recent weeks shows most respondents support increasing the minimum wage, boosting welfare rates and disability supports, and implementing $10-a-day child care.
Not surprisingly, the two main political parties often take different positions on these key issues. The NDP says, if elected, it would boost wages, adopt $10-a-day child care, and create a poverty reduction plan.
“We are the only province that doesn’t have (a plan) and it strikes me that any business, any not-for-profit, any family usually tries to put in place a plan if they want to get out of a jam — and we’re in a jam right now,” said NDP leader John Horgan.
The Liberals remain intransigent to a formal plan. A smaller-scale provincial program that has made a difference in the lives of poor families is the Single Parents’ Employment Initiative, which allows single parents on income assistance to receive training and child care. More than 4,500 single parents have used the program, and more than 900 of them have found employment since its launch in 2015, said Michelle Stilwell, social development minister.
Despite a large surplus, the Liberals say they must be fiscally cautious about expensive social programs.
“Is there more work to be done? Absolutely. And our view is, you do that when you can afford to pay for it,” said Bond, the jobs minister. “We care about vulnerable British Columbians. We just have chosen a path that is balanced and reasonable and relies on us growing the economy to be able to pay for those programs.”
British Columbians will have their say on how to address poverty when they cast their votes on May 9.
Annie Ohana, a high school teacher in Surrey’s inner-city Whalley neighbourhood and a member of a BCTF anti-poverty group, sees hungry kids in her school every day. Her hope is to see families who are struggling have their basic needs met so they can focus on getting ahead in life through education.
“If I have a student who has good access to health care, their parents don’t have to worry about housing costs and there is food security and other mechanisms in the community to help them, then school becomes a very positive place,” Ohana said.
Federal and provincial governments have cut funding for basic adult education and literacy courses, making it hard for many recent immigrants to improve their skills.
Liberals: Although the government scrapped free courses, it offers grants for people who have incomes below $24,144, or below $36,955 for those with two dependents. High-school courses are still free for adults without a diploma, but no longer free for those who graduated from secondary school but need to upgrade.
NDP: If elected, the NDP said it would reinstate tuition-free adult basic education courses and would work with Ottawa to make English-language courses as “barrier-free as possible.”
Greens: Believe the education system should be accessible to residents “of all income groups,” but provided no further details.
A $10-a-day child care program would pay for itself with the economic benefits of more mothers entering the workforce, and would have the greatest effect of all the strategies to reduce working poverty, advocates say. “This isn’t a few kooky left-wing women who think this is a good idea. … This is completely mainstream now,” said campaign organizer Sharon Gregson.
Critics, though, say the $1.5-billion social program would mean higher taxes.
Liberals: Although the federal government announced in March a $90-million annual boost to child care funding in B.C., the province said it would not use this money for a $10-per-day program, but instead will create more daycare spaces. The B.C. Liberals, in their February budget, vowed to spend $20 million to build 5,000 new child care spaces, but the money will not cover operating costs or fee subsidies.
NDP: The NDP has said it would adopt $10-a-day child care and implement it over time.
Greens: Are committed to “affordable child care” and will release details during the campaign.
Anti-poverty advocates say raising wages is a key element of a poverty reduction plan. Several American cities, including Seattle, Los Angeles and San Francisco, have recently adopted policies to sharply boost minimum wages to $15 an hour. Alberta’s jumps to $15 in October 2018. Australia’s is now $17.70. A B.C.-based national campaign is lobbying for a “living wage” — pegged at $20.64 an hour in Vancouver — to better ensure families can afford life’s necessities.
The Business Council of B.C.’s Jock Finlayson said, generally speaking, raising a minimum wage too much too quickly could be a big shock to small businesses and could cause them to scale back their demand for entry-level workers.
Liberals: In 2015, the government linked the minimum wage to inflation and promised annual increases. It plans to raise the minimum wage to $11.35 in September. Many jobs have been created under the Liberals’ rule, but statistics show more than half of the 72,000 new jobs in 2016 were part-time.
NDP: The NDP has said it would gradually increase the minimum wage to $15.
Greens: The party says the minimum wage should be increased with the cost of living, and supports the concept of a living wage.
In expensive Metro Vancouver, anything to reduce the price of housing — whether it’s for rent or for sale — would help the working poor. Advocates of a poverty-reduction plan call for the government to build 10,000 units of social housing and co-ops each year. There are 16,000 people on the waitlist for subsidized homes through B.C. Housing, but priority is given to the homeless — leaving the working poor very low on the list.
Liberals: The government implemented the 15-per-cent foreign buyers’ tax in a bid to curb the sky-high real estate market, and introduced loans to help first-time buyers. In the last year, the Liberals funded more than 6,100 subsidized housing units and provided rent supplements to about 1,500 households. They have announced a long-term plan to spend $920 million to construct and renovate close to 5,300 affordable rental units.
NDP: The NDP says if elected it would work to protect existing co-operative housing from potential federal government funding cuts and also work with Ottawa to build new co-ops. The party says it would ensure more rental housing is built and would try to reduce the B.C. Housing waitlist.
Greens: The party believes that reasonable accommodation is a right for all British Columbians. The party says its campaign will outline a plan to use money generated by the housing market to create affordable housing solutions.