By Thea McDonagh
March 2020 marked the one-year anniversary of “TogetherBC”, BC’s first poverty reduction plan. The anniversary coincided with the escalation of the COVID-19 pandemic and the provision of income supports to help Canadians mitigate the financial impacts of the pandemic. This coincidence has underscored the stark difference between what has been deemed an essential income by the federal government and what is provided to people who rely on provincial income assistance.
In response to the pandemic, the federal government created the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB). The benefit provides $2000 per month to Canadians who lost income due to COVID-19 and is intended to cover the cost of basic necessities and sustain people until they are able to return to work. To date, the federal government has provided a total of 53 billion dollars in CERB benefits. In contrast to the CERB, the provincial government has provided recipients of income and disability assistance with a $300 monthly crisis supplement to help with the additional costs related to COVID-19. Although this supplement is a necessary and welcome measure, when compared to the federal response, recipients of provincial assistance can’t help but feel left behind. In BC, a single person on basic income assistance is expected to survive on $760 per month. For people who live with disabilities, the provincial assistance amount is $1183 per month. Even with the additional $300, which is only temporary, both benefits are still far below the $2000 deemed by the federal government as necessary to make ends meet.
In addition to the low rates, recipients of provincial income assistance are ineligible for many of the other provincial supports that have been created to alleviate the impact of the pandemic. For example, they cannot collect the BC Emergency Benefit for Workers, a one-time $1000 benefit provided to people who lost work due to COVID-19. Even if they lost work and meet all the other eligibility criteria, they are ineligible solely due to being on provincial assistance. They are also ineligible for the $500 provincial rent supplement despite the fact they are only allotted $375 per month to pay for rent. In our experience at TAPS, it is precisely these people who need these supplements the most. To prevent them from accessing them because they are already receiving income support is both short-sighted and punitive.
The government responses to the pandemic highlights the lack of consideration afforded to the most marginalized members of our community. Could it be any clearer now to those on provincial assistance that we expect them to do more with less? To somehow survive with almost half of what the federal government has deemed essential? The first report on the Poverty Reduction Strategy is expected to be released this fall, and we at TAPS are calling on the government to re-evaluate income assistance rates and make the $300 increase to provincial benefits permanent. Provincial income assistance recipients have been living in a state of crisis that predates COVID-19 due to the woefully low rates of assistance. The $300 increase has given those living in the deepest poverty a brief reprieve, and it would be cruel to take that away and force them to return to previous levels. The pandemic has presented us with a chance to re-evaluate our social and economic structures; let’s use this opportunity to ensure that all members of our community are provided for.