Unravelling BC’s Punishing Welfare Bureaucracy

In April, Care Not Cops with endorsement from the BC Poverty Reduction Coalition, Dudes Club Society, Disability Alliance BC, Sanctuary Health, Coalition of Peers Dismantling the Drug War, South Asian Mental Health Alliance, & Pivot Legal Society submitted a policy brief to the Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction (MSDPR) in response to their call for public input. The brief contains an urgent request and 22 recommendations that could be implemented tomorrow to meaningfully improve access to social assistance and income security.

Care Not Cops has issued an urgent call and accompanying roadmap to reduce the punitive, carceral and workfare-oriented approaches presently embedded in British Columbia’s system for administering income assistance.

The approach currently favoured by BC politicians is to fund symbolic instead of systemic change: ‘systems navigators’ without a surplus of support to navigate; ‘housing hubs’ with no additional housing; or mild changes to the shelter rate. These are not solutions. Rather, they tend to further complicate the bureaucracy of income security in BC. Care Not Cops’ policy recommendations call for broader transformation. Material resources should flow as directly as possible to the people who need them. Increased bureaucratic processes means more wealth being stolen through organizational administrative costs, while only adding to the stress and trauma of trying to survive while living in poverty in BC.

To me, good social work practice should include working to dismantle the gatekeeping of resources by institutions from the people and communities we operate in, always with an ultimate vision of eliminating a need for social work altogether. These policy changes would improve livelihoods en route to enriching communities equitably.” –Tyson Singh Kelsall, RSW

The Care Not Cops policy brief recognizes the political roots of poor health and premature death in our communities. The recommendations contained in the brief were crafted by a group of health and social service workers who have witnessed and/or experienced the barriers recipients face while navigating this system. They constitute a first step towards the changes needed to create a just distribution of resources across diverse communities.

After years and decades of stagnant assistance rates, there is extreme urgency for the MSDPR to immediately and minimally triple the non-shelter monthly income assistance (IA) rates while indexing rates to inflation. For a single person, this would see the monthly IA rate increase from $560 to $1680, and the disability (PWD) rate from $983.50 to $2950.50. In the absence of rent-geared-to-income and other accessible social housing, the shelter rate should be made flexible to meet the housing crisis with the response people deserve across regions. 

“I can say that after over a decade of working in social service and healthcare settings, it is difficult to qualify just how negligent BC’s income assistance rates are. It is unconscionable that the provincial government would not immediately raise the rates to give people living in poverty a chance to survive.” –karina czyzewski, MA, MSW, RCSW

“Income limits of $15,000 are untenable. Not only should the annual amount be increased; it should be reassessed to reflect inflation. People max out before they can see the exit route from poverty, and the sudden cut-off is difficult to balance with employer expectations. Making the annual earning exemption liveable and flexible is a necessary change.” –Kahlied Salem, Housing Coordinator

Core recommendations include:

  • Abolish the financial penalization of couples. Stop cutting supports for couples if they move-in together. Implement other groups’ call to ‘can the cap’ & eliminate cuts to disability supports based on spousal income.
  • Make direct deposit an option beyond cheque day. End the practice of forcing in-person cheque collection if people voluntarily ‘split’ their payments. People deserve the autonomy to opt-out of cheque day.
  • Eliminate the requirement to share details of an ‘unexpected event’ to access a food, shelter or clothing crisis supplement.  It is not trauma-informed to request that people share stressful or traumatic events without adequate support. Instead, offer transparent guidelines to crisis grant limits and amounts that can be accessed. This includes never asking for a police file number.
  • Triple the food crisis grant from $40 to $120. The food crisis grant amount does not reflect current costs of nutrition.
  • Develop capacity for MSPDR to complete BC Services photo ID cards in-office. Barriers to having adequate photo ID perpetuates the activities of daily living that income assistance and PWD are purported to reduce.
  • Continue to pay rent and administer financial support to people who become incarcerated for longer than three months. Discharge from prison to homelessness and complete poverty increases numerous measured ‘risk factors,’ including overdose death (a BC government report states that people who have experienced incarceration are 7 times more likely to die by overdose).
  • Never withhold an entire cheque strictly for administrative reasons. Lack of income security compels the need to take on both interpersonal and formal debts with an expectation that repayment will occur on the day of cheque issue or soon after.
  • In collaboration with the Ministry of Health, abolish the 3-month waiting period for MSP by including automatic coverage for those who successfully apply for IA; cover MSP fees for international students while working toward their elimination. Care Not Cops strongly supports Sanctuary Health, the Centre for Gender & Sexual Health Equity’s and IRIS’ demand to end the 3-month wait.
  • Immediately increase the annual earnings limit from $15,000 to $34,999, followed by a marginal cut (i.e. 20 cents per dollar) until at least a $44,000 threshold. Strict and low annual earnings limits pose barriers for people to obtain employment and compound harm by ensuring people receiving this benefit remain in poverty.

Recommendations share themes of promoting access to basic needs, such as healthcare, housing, nutrition, and identification documents. Implemented in tandem, these changes would distribute (and redistribute) resources more directly to people who need them, thereby relieving unnecessary burdens people face in navigating the convoluted income assistance system. 

Dudes Club Society values align with implementing these practical and clear recommendations. Doing so would begin to address the barriers marginalized Métis, First Nation and Inuit men face in their day-to-day access of much needed resources.” –Jason Fitzpatrick, RSW

Lifting people out of poverty would save costs across different areas of government, including in relation to the policing of poverty. Notably, many of these recommendations would decrease costly MSDPR worker discretion and create clear standards. The labyrinth of street-level policy related to income assistance drains public resources through numerous organizations, often funded by similar areas of government, that provide support to navigate ministry services (i.e., two $28-40 per hour workers debating whether to release a $40 dollar crisis grant to an individual). 

Income and social determinants of health have long been linked not only to mortality, but opportunity for a decent life within an overarching system that abandons, or extracts value from, those whom the system was not designed for. These policy recommendations shift some power and resources away from the multiple sectors that benefit from service provision toward those who these provisions should serve. 

“At its simplest, our class positions and financial stability dictate access to every opportunity, resource, relationship and choice in our lives. At its most nuanced, the scripts of poverty, moral purity, and Good Citizenship then frame how we treat each other and view ourselves; reproducing harm and violence towards those who experience profound oppression. The Ministry’s policies effectively operate from this virtue of who/who isn’t deserving of care, support and humanity.” –Navi Dasanjh, RSW

Click here to read all recommendations and the full document.


Karis Bergsma, RSW

Shireen Soofi