Editorial: Clawbacks fail to fight poverty

For a child whose mother is working, child-support payments can make a lot of difference — perhaps music lessons, new clothes, school trips or sports equipment — but to the child whose mother is on provincial social assistance or disability assistance, child support makes no difference at all.

It’s a cheapskate policy that does nothing to help lift people out of poverty.

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The New Democrats attacked the B.C. Liberals in the legislature last week for deducting family-maintenance payments from people on income or disability assistance. Lawyers for the Community Legal Assistance Society and the West Coast Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund are contemplating a court challenge to the practice, saying it violates the children’s basic human rights.

A single woman with one child on income assistance receives $945 a month, or $1,242 a month if she is on disability assistance.

People on social assistance can keep some earned income. Individuals on social assistance can earn up up to $200 a month without being penalized, while a parent on disability assistance can earn up to $800 a month without having anything deducted.

But if a single-parent on assistance receives a child-support payment from an ex-partner, the full amount is deducted from the assistance cheque.

One of the reasons for child support is to provide a certain standard of living for a child that usually goes beyond mere survival. For a child whose parent is on assistance (and the majority of those single parents are mothers), the policy cancels out any benefit from child support.

Besides being unfair to the child, it removes any motive for a parent to go after an ex-spouse for maintenance payments.

Premier Christy Clark defends the policy, saying taxpayers want social assistance to be a bare minimum. The trouble with a minimal existence is that it leaves little opportunity for people to better themselves, to climb out of the pit of poverty. Maintenance payments could be a step on the ladder out of that pit, but the province’s policy knocks the ladder down.

The idea of welfare cheats milking the system is repugnant, and officials should be vigilant to ensure it doesn’t happen, but it is hard to contemplate trying to raise a child on $945 or $1,242 a month.

Last year, advocacy groups proposed allowing children to keep $300 a month without having it clawed back by the government. That’s a modest and reasonable proposal.

Clark says a better policy would be to raise social assistance rates when the budget is not so tight, noting that the last rate increase was in 2007.

By the way, 2007 was when B.C. Liberal MLAs (with NDP MLAs opposing) voted themselves a 29 per cent pay raise, which boosted their paycheques to $98,000 a year. The premier’s pay was jacked up 54 per cent to $186,000 a year. MLAs’ pay has since topped $100,000 and the premier makes more than $193,000.

To add a little perspective, the extra monthly pay an MLA receives just for chairing a standing or special committee is more than the income assistance paid to a single mother with a child. Don’t forget a rich pension plan and generous expense allowances.

Legislative pay and social assistance are two different issues, but are not disconnected. Legislators who can find the means to be generous to themselves should be able to find ways to extend that generosity to those who have nothing.

It would be refreshing if politicians applied the meaning of “bare minimum” to themselves with the same zeal they apply it to people on assistance. They could start by allowing families on assistance to keep at least part of money received as child support.

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