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May 15, 2009

Welfare Up 49.8% - Revealed Post Election

The first crumb of what will likely be a lot more previously hidden bad news came out three days after the election when the Ministry of Housing and Social Services released welfare statistics that should have been released by the end of April. The statistics for March 2009 show that for the category of "temporary assistance expected to work" the caseload increased by 49.8% between March 2008 and March 2009. The total welfare caseload is up 13.6% relative to a year earlier, and stands at the highest level since 2002. The welfare caseload has not only been increasing, but the increase has been accelerating. That was taking place in 2008 when Premier Campbell was still claiming that BC would duck the worst of the recession. It was worst yet during the election campaign when Premier Campbell was saying "Keep BC Strong". Thousands of British Columbians aren't looking at "keeping" BC strong, they just desperately want to regain their own strength.

Welfare statistics are available and updated monthly on a government webpage titled: "BC Employment and Assistance Current Month Statistics". The left hand column on that page shows the release dates, the last day of the month following the month being added (e.g. March 31 for the February data) until we got to the election campaign when the government sat on the bad news until after the vote.

On the evening of March 14th I submitted a freedom of information request for emails that discuss the release of the March data. I think it is likely that someone in the Premier's Office or the Public Affairs Bureau instructed those responsible for the statistics in the Ministry of Housing and Social Services not to release the figures until after the election. The morning after my request for information was faxed to the Ministry I received a phone call telling me that the statistics had been posted to the website. I explained that my freedom of information request is not for the statistics, which I presumed would eventually appear, but for the emails discussing their release. If past experience is any indication, I won't hold my breath waiting for the letter and spirit of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act to be honoured. Nevertheless, I think it important not to let the government get away with manipulating the release of information for its political benefit.

The welfare data are only the tip of the iceberg. No serious economist believes the figures in the Campbell government's February budget. That budget didn't pass before the Legislature was dissolved for the election; consequently, the government must call the Legislature and pass a budget before its interim spending authority is exhausted in late August or early September. That's when we'll get a glimpse at how bad things really are. Before then we'll see the audited financial statements for 2008, the Public Accounts, which will permit a comparison of what the government estimated for 2008 when the February budget was tabled and how things actually worked out.

Premier Campbell has a blank cheque for four more years, but how far he can go with that mandate depends on his ability to maintain public credibility. It is one thing to say that no economist is getting forecasts right in these tough times, but it is quite another to refuse to release critical information that the public might use in judging whether it is a matter of keeping BC strong, or struggling to return BC to strength.


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