The unkindest cut of all - The Orca

The unkindest cut of all

Rob Shaw 2

Rob Shaw: The NDP’s spin on cutting income and disability assistance is both familiar and frustrating.

It’s not often that Vancouver City Council is the voice of reason on, well, pretty much anything.

But the NDP government should probably take note when even that council can bridge its extreme partisan divides to unanimously unite in calling for the province to change course on an issue.

The council published an op-ed in Sunday’s The Province newspaper, appealing to the NDP to restore a $300-a-month COVID-19 crisis supplement cut this month for people in income assistance and disability.

The government halved the supplement in January, and will eliminate it entirely after March.

“In B.C., income assistance is currently $760 a month, and disability assistance is $1,183 a month,” read the op-ed.

“That amount has to cover everything: food, rent, medical supplies, clothes, heat, bus fare, and more. It is hard to imagine this being enough to live on anywhere in B.C., and it certainly isn’t in Vancouver.”

Poverty reduction and social justice advocates have been hammering the NDP since the Finance Ministry quietly buried the announcement of the cuts last month at the bottom of a press release extolling the virtues of B.C.’s popular one-time $1,000 recovery benefit.

Almost no one has risen to the NDP’s defence on the issue. Even within the party, it’s an unpopular decision.

The $300 monthly boost doesn’t sound like enough to make a huge difference in someone’s life. But talk to some of the 200,000 people living on government assistance and they’ll quickly tell you it means the world.

The supplement allows them just enough money to add fresh fruit and vegetables into their groceries, with a little left over to help purchase new clothing for their children. This at a time when the pandemic has jacked up the price of many ordinary household goods.

Even with the extra amount, disability and social assistance recipients get less money a month than the $1,667 poverty line set by analyzing the market basket costs of household goods.

Factor in Metro Vancouver’s insane housing prices, and ever-increasing rent rates, and it’s not an exaggeration when social advocates describe a “cycle” of poverty for people so far behind on monthly living expenses they can’t get out of the hole.

And yet, the NDP has inexplicably dug in on this issue.

Social Development Minister Nicholas Simons, who for more than a decade has been one of the most vocal advocates for those living in poverty, was sent out into the media with a list of god-awful talking points about how the poorest of the poor would still somehow come out ahead financially even with the cutbacks.

The argument made no sense.

In Simons’ defence, the cutback wasn’t his decision. It came from Finance Minister Selina Robinson’s office. Still, he’s the one wearing it in public.

Social justice advocates, who have been some of the NDP’s most reliable and vocal supporters, have turned their guns on the party. A new “300 to Live” campaign is making the rounds in the same political circles that have helped New Democrats get elected for years.

That alone should give the government pause.

The Opposition B.C. Liberals have also jumped into the fray, chastising the government for the decision, and calling on it to reverse course to boost help for the province’s most vulnerable.

That may be the most hypocritical part of this whole issue.

People in poverty are immeasurably worse off because of the decisions made by the previous Liberal government.

Its refusal to raise the social assistance rate for more than a decade will go down as one of the most mean-spirited and blindly ideological moves in modern B.C. political history. It wasn’t much more generous on the minimum wage.

Then there was the time the Liberals tried to clawback bus passes from the disabled. Or maternity benefits from those on welfare.

There’s no defending those decisions. And it’s more than a little galling to see the Liberals call on the NDP to help the poor, after refusing, for years, to do the same.

But the really depressing thing is that the arguments the Liberals used – disabled people losing their bus passes will actually give them more transportation choices, for example – bears a striking resemblance to the spin the NDP is now deploying on the supplement clawback.

Some things, it seems, never change.

Much of this comes down to immense costs associated with B.C.’s welfare system. It would cost $840 million annually to make the $300 monthly crisis supplement permanent. Add $70 million annually to the treasury for every $100 additional increase to monthly income assistance rates. Add another $150 million per year for every $100 monthly boost to disability rates.

It gets expensive quickly.

Still, if there was ever a time for New Democrats to help the most needy, it is now, in the middle of the worst public health crisis of our generation.

The province is on track to run a $15 billion deficit this year, with no plans to balance the books for at least another four years.

Millions of people across the country have relied on provincial and federal government aid programs to get them through the pandemic. They are primed to support an increase to the social safety net for those who need it most. The political cover is there for New Democrats, if they want to use it.

To the NDP’s credit, at least one person seems to recognize the political risk on this path: Premier John Horgan.

When faced with questions about the clawback last month, Horgan pivoted on the fly to suggest he’s pushing for a permanent increase to social assistance and disability rates in April’s provincial budget.

The change in position was so ad-libbed that not even Simons saw it coming.

Maybe this shift will solve the problem. However, NDP insiders have cautioned not to expect the increase to match the full $300 monthly supplement.

So whatever is coming, it’s unlikely to make up what the poorest in this province have already lost.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 13 years covering BC politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for The Orca. He is the co-author of the national best-selling book A Matter of Confidence, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.