BC has had a change in government for the first time in 16 years. People living in poverty know just how challenging it has been to survive during this period, with a government that failed to address income inequality in any meaningful way—and, indeed, the failure goes back farther, to previous governments.
Poverty has become more entrenched and more visible than at any other time in our province’s history. The term “crisis”, used to describe enduring hunger, the struggle for access to social housing, and the unrelenting and preventable number of overdose deaths, has become tired from overuse.
In BC, a reported half a million people go hungry every day, tent cities have proliferated, and from January 2016 to May 2017 we lost 1607 individuals to opioid overdoses—108 in Victoria alone. This level of hunger, lack of adequate housing, and needless death has a direct correlation to past and existing government policy, legislation, and priority setting. Decades of neglect have taken an incredible toll on people living in poverty and their families. A new government brings new hope, but will the proposed changes be enough to tackle the challenges? To put things in perspective, I have listed some of the new ministers, along with some of the changes that are being proposed.
There are some positive signs coming from the newly named Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction, with an end to the 10-year freeze in income assistance rates. Effective September 20, 2017, the new monthly rates will be $710 for a person on income assistance and $1,133 for a person receiving disability assistance, an increase of $100. Minister Shane Simpson’s mandate also includes increasing the monthly earnings exemptions to $200 and restoring the BC Bus Pass Program, as well as developing a basic-income pilot, a province-wide poverty reduction strategy (BC is the last province to implement one), and a homelessness action plan.
Selena Robinson, Minister for Municipal Affairs and Housing, has a mandate to work in collaboration with multiple ministries and across all levels of government to build 114,000 new—and desperately needed—units of affordable housing. She is also mandated to address long-standing gaps in the Residential Tenancy Act (gaps that have left tenants unprotected), increase resources to the Residential Tenancy Branch, and “deliver an annual renter’s rebate of $400 dollars per rental household to improve rental affordability.”
Judy Darcy, Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, a newly created ministry, will be working to develop an immediate response to the opioid crisis, while creating a “mental health and addiction strategy to guide the transformation of B.C.’s mental health care system.”
Harry Bains, Minister of Labour, has been instructed to work towards implementing a $15 per hour minimum wage by 2021, and to make recommendations for ways “to close the gap between the minimum wage and livable wages.” The working poor are in need of stronger protections in the workplace to achieve even a basic level of fairness at work. Importantly, Bains’ mandate includes updating the Employment Standards Act, and ensuring that the Act is applied evenly and is enforced.
Katrina Chen, Minister of State for Child Care has been directed to work across sectors “to implement a universal child care plan that provides affordable, accessible, high-quality care and early learning to every child and family in need.”
Taking the list above into consideration, there is certainly some room for optimism. However, as the estimated cost to the provincial economy of doing nothing to address poverty has been pegged at $8.1 to $9.2 billion, while the cost of a comprehensive poverty reduction strategy has been estimated at $3 to $4 billion, it remains to be seen whether or not the new government will make the necessary and prudent investment that is so desperately needed to reverse the trend of growing inequality. For the here and now, we know that people in BC who are hungry today will be hungry tomorrow.
Note: Quotations are from individual mandate letters which can be viewed online by Googling “Cabinet Ministers British Columbia”.