Tougher times for North’s single parents

🕔Dec 04, 2006

Judging by newspaper headlines, BC’s economy is booming. According to the Ministry of Employment and Income Assistance, 299,400 jobs have been created in BC since December 2001, and unemployment is at the lowest level ever. The total province-wide income assistance caseload (one case consists of a single person or a family) has dropped by 36% since 2001.

But according to Audrey Schwartz, director of Prince George-based Active Support Against Poverty, single parents on income assistance are struggling in the North, and the province’s economic success seems far away.

“Women are making choices such as ‘can I afford to take the bus today,’ or ‘can my child go to that birthday party,’” she says. “[Income Assistance] is a last resort when people find themselves really stretched. It’s enough for basic survival, if that.”

Despite the province’s economic success, income assistance rates in BC have been reduced over the past 12 years. According to an April 2006 report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) entitled Budget Savings on the Backs of the Poor, benefits for single-parent families were cut or “clawed back” by $43 to $90 between April 2002 and March 2004. During the same period, shelter allowances for families of three or more were reduced by $55 to $75. At the same time, according to the Bank of Canada, the cost of living increased by 28%.

The government says rates haven’t increased in so-called “expected to work” cases because the Ministry’s program focuses on resources for people in the “disabled” or “persistent multiple barrier” categories.

“The purpose of BC’s system is to help people that are capable of working to find and keep jobs,” said Ministry Communications Director Richard Chambers. “[The province] has a system of supports in place for the people most in need.”

In 2001, the Ministry began implementing a range of policy changes. These included more stringent eligibility criteria for income assistance applicants, and measures allowing easier removal of cases, reduction of staff, closing offices and cutting social assistance programs.

According to Dr. Penny Gurstein, lead researcher in The Income Assistance Project—a five-year study by researchers from UBC, SFU and UNBC—people on income assistance in Northern BC face unique obstacles.

The study is investigating how low-income, lone-mother families have been affected by the 2001 policy changes. Beginning in 2003, researchers worked with 22 single mothers in urban Vancouver and the rural Bulkley Valley. So far they have found that these parents have been hit hard—especially in the north. One of the project’s reports, released in February 2005, is titled Lost in the Shuffle: Policy changes leave women in northwestern British Columbia bewildered, broke and with few places to turn.

The report notes that the impact of the Ministry’s 2001 changes is magnified for single mothers in rural northern areas. Authors Jillian Stockburger and Sylvia Fuller write that some of these women live in “severely depressed local economies where the few well-paid jobs that remain tend to be in male-dominated resource industries.” Post-secondary education is less accessible in these areas, and the stock of housing is smaller. While Prince George has a public transit system, many of the smaller communities don’t, and winter heating is a big issue in the north, says Schwartz. Resources are fewer. For example, the study reports the food bank in Smithers can only be used once a month.

“There are not as many resources in the North,” states Dr. Gurstein. “The supply is depleted in terms of food banks here [in the Lower Mainland], and I imagine it’s even harder in the north.”

BC’s single parents with one child can receive income assistance of $969 per month—18 percent less than 12 years ago, according to the CCPA.

Using the most recent numbers from Statistics Canada (2004), Income Assistance Project researcher Dr. Jane Pulkingham found that while just over one-third of Canada’s lone mothers are poor, almost half of BC’s single mothers live in poverty. These poverty rates are based on Statistics Canada’s low-income cutoffs. In a recent article written for the CCPA she states that in BC poverty levels among single mothers rose about 16 percent between 2000 and 2004.

Schwartz says her organization has observed some of these effects first-hand. “We noticed that even though the number of people on income assistance has gone down, our office is as busy as ever, and the shelter is packed,” she said. “We see people in dire straits who need immediate help: their hydro is cut off and their children are hungry… The level of urgency has increased dramatically. People are having a really tough time.”

As well, in the past single parents could stay at home to care for their children full-time, and receive income assistance until their child reached the age of seven. Now, when children turn three parents must actively look for work.The policy changes also cancelled spousal support exemptions for single parents—a $100 monthly maintenance payment from a former spouse. So-called ‘earning exemptions’ for the 30% of individuals on income assistance in the ‘expected to work’ category – that is, those without disabilities or significant barriers to employment—were also removed.

This means single parents on welfare are no longer able to keep earnings of up to $200 per month. Instead, every dollar earned is subtracted from their monthly cheques.

“[At the Ministry] we believe that income assistance is asset-based,” said Chambers. “People are entitled to and eligible for it based on the amount they earn…There’s no [income] exemption for people expected to work.”

Chambers referred to a 2001 study from the United States entitled How Welfare and Work Policies Affect Employment and Income, stating it found that for people in the ‘expected to work’ category, earnings exemptions increased the amount of time spent on income assistance. He noted the average length of ‘expected to work’ cases was four months, and said earnings exemptions can perpetuate generational dependence on income assistance.

“The study indicated that earnings exemptions often keep people on the [welfare] caseload longer,” he said. “Combining part-time work with income assistance does not move people towards the ultimate goal of full-time employment… Our ultimate goal is people…[returning] to the workforce as soon as possible.”

Dr. Gurstein disagrees, saying such a situation removes any incentive to do any extra work. Earnings exemptions encourage people to work part-time, she says, helping people gain skills and work experience.

The province’s training programs have recently undergone reform. In October 2006 the Ministry’s Community Assistance Program began focusing solely on life-skills and advocacy services for the most vulnerable income assistance clients, with services tailored to the needs of individual clients. As well, last summer the Ministry launched the BC Employment Program to develop an individualized package of employment services and supports.

In BC, the number of single-parent income assistance cases is 56,700 lower since the reforms, said Chambers. However, it is difficult to assess whether this drop is from less people entering the system or more people leaving it after finding steady employment. Chambers said privacy issues and reluctance among former clients to stay in contact with the Ministry preclude it from gathering data to track whether these individuals have moved into long-term employment.

“There is no requirement for people who have left income assistance to let the office know where they are and what they are doing,” he said. “Most people, when they are off [income assistance], don’t want to have anything to do with us.”