Strategic Thoughts

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October 12, 2006

Lower Health Costs by Helping the Hungry

According to the Dietitians of Canada, about 10% of Canadians "lack the funds to purchase sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active healthy life." BC's Provincial Health Officer elaborated on hungry British Columbians in his latest annual report. In the highlights of his report, he stressed that: "Factors affecting the ability to afford nutritious food in BC include higher costs of a basic "market basket" of items, higher housing costs, inadequate social assistance rates, increased levels of homelessness, and a minimum wage level that can result in even full-time workers in some BC communities falling below the federal low-income cut-off." By raising both income assistance rates and the minimum wage, the Campbell government might lower health care costs and stimulate the economy.

In British Columbia a single mother who suffers "persistent multiple barriers" to employment, and who has one child, is eligible for income assistance of $376.58 per month plus $520 per month for shelter. Check the want-ads to see what you can find for $520 a month. In the absence of persistent multiple barriers, an employable single mother's assistance rate drops $69.36, about $2.30 a day - a nickel more than a one-zone bus fare. If she can find a place to live for $520 a month so she doesn't have to use her food budget for housing, the multiply challenged mother's assistance works out to $12.55 a day for food for two, transportation, clothing, laundry and all other necessities of life. A two-zone round trip on a bus in the Lower Mainland costs $6.50, more than half of the day's budget for food and essentials.

Think what it means to feed, clothe and clean yourself and a child on $12.55 a day when you consider the largess of the Campbell government in announcing on October 10th, the day after Thanksgiving, that $275,000 has been made available so community agencies that "provide hands-on cooking and nutritional skill-building programs for adults and families living with limited incomes" can apply for "up to $1000 for one-time expenses such as kitchen equipment (including fridges, freezers, storage bins, pots and pans) or teaching and learning resources for skill-building activities such as cooking, shopping, meal planning, budgeting and food safety." There is nothing wrong with helping people learn better nutritional skills, and community agencies that help feed poor children in school breakfast programs will make good use of the money, but it doesn't come close to meeting the need.

When the Campbell government announced its $40 million rental assistance program, it specifically excluded anyone who is in receipt of income assistance. The low income working poor, of which there are many more than the 15,000 the government expects to apply for rental assistance, can receive up to 50% of the difference between their rent (max $825) and 30% of their income. The difference between the maximum rent considered in the program and the maximum rent allowed for a single mother of one child on welfare is almost equal to the full amount she is given for food and essentials. If the Campbell government wants to deal with homelessness and hunger, it has to raise welfare rates.

In July 2006 there were 1,114 single families with persistent multiple barriers on income assistance. Increasing the shelter allowance for single parents with one child to $672 (half of the difference between the current rate and the rental assistance maximum), would cost the province $2 million. That is less than half what is being spent on advertising for the conversation on health care. At 3.0% interest, it is 10 days interest cost on what the Auditor General says the 2010 games will cost BC.

Of course there are more people on assistance who need increases than just single families with multiple barriers to employment. In July 2006 there were 101,081 "cases" (singles and families) receiving some form of assistance, ranging from 6,735 single employable men to 1,219 two-parent families receiving disability benefits. When dependents are counted, the hundred thousand cases include 136,082 people. A 10% across the board increase in both the basic and shelter portion of the rates for all recipients would cost $100 million. If it spent the same per family on income assistance clients as it says it is spending on low income renters, it would fund a 27% increase in benefits which would raise the basic assistance rate for the hypothetical single mother, mentioned at the beginning of this column, to $478.25 and her shelter allowance to $660. That is still more than 20% less than she would make working full-time at minimum wage. She'd still be in poverty, but there would be less homelessness and hunger.


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2006 David D. Schreck. All Rights Reserved.