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Refugees are bringing new attention to the gaps in our social safety net

Photo: Policy Note blog

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As we welcome refugees in larger numbers this year, the spotlight is turned on our disintegrating social infrastructure.

For example, Government Assisted Refugees (GAR) receive a monthly allowance equivalent to the provincial social assistance rates. A family of two adults and two children receives a maximum monthly shelter allowance of $700; families with four children receive $785 per month. Unchanged since 2007, these rates do not come close to meeting the shelter needs of anyone -- refugees or people born in B.C.

This inability to afford housing and other basics with the GAR allowance makes it all the more important for refugees to find work as soon as possible, and indeed low social assistance rates are designed to encourage this. After all, the official policy of the BC government has long been that "the best social program is a job." This well-worn phrase, around since the 1970s and used by Ronald Reagan and most recently, Donald Trump, masks the interdependence of employment, affordable housing and ongoing access to education. Finding work that can pay B.C.'s rents requires qualifications beyond high school computer skills, math and English. But here again, newcomers and locals alike encounter more holes in our social infrastructure.

The reorganization and cutbacks to adult ESL classes by the former federal government have produced wait lists of over a year for Language Instruction for Newcomers (LINC) in some B.C. communities, another fact that newly arrived Syrian refugees have discovered. Recent cuts to adult education programs in B.C. and the imposition of high tuition fees for adult basic education means that these vital sources of basic education, skills training and technology qualifications are either too expensive or no longer exist. And of course it takes time to learn new skills. All this creates a catch-22: take an insecure low-paying job and risk homelessness and food insecurity, or pursue education in hopes of getting a better job and risk homelessness and food insecurity while getting that education.

Finding and maintaining decent employment requires the coordination of connected systems: housing, education of many kinds, access to health care and supportive social networks. The arrival of many vulnerable but resilient newcomers in the past months has brought our frayed social-educational infrastructure into the spotlight and challenges government decision-makers to a) raise housing allowances in the third most unaffordable housing market in the world; b) reverse policies that create disincentives and even punishment for pursuing adult learning and c) ensure language classes are available and affordable.

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