“Tens of thousands of jobs are available for people on income assistance. They want them, and we’re helping them to work — unlike the socialist government, whose success was to have more people on welfare.”

Murray Coell, Hansard, Question Period, October 8, 2003.

What was the Minister of Human Resources ranting about? He was attempting to justify the government’s decision to impose a two-year limit on income assistance recipients in British Columbia.

On April 1, 2004, the Ministry will kick thousands of BC residents off welfare. This measure is one of a series of measures designed to cut $600 million from the income assistance budget by 2005-06 on top of the $240 million in cuts to the Ministry of Children and Families.

How many people will lose benefits as a result of the government’s time limit? The Minister knows. And he spent Question Period last Wednesday and Thursday refusing to reveal the information contained in his Ministry’s own briefing note.

Instead, the Minister offered an odd fiction. The economy is going well according to Murray Coell because of his government’s actions. “Tens of thousands of jobs are available.” For the Minister, once government supports are removed, income assistance recipients will be forced to march back into the workforce.

According to Statistics Canada, the seasonally adjusted unemployment jumped to 9.1 per cent in British Columbia this month. In June 2001, the unemployment rate was only 6.8 per cent. In other words, the rate has jumped by 33 per cent since the BC Liberals came to power. The number of unemployed has increased by more than 60,000 in this period — one of the largest such increases since World War II.

The Premier has always made economic growth rather than employment his main measure of success. However, economic growth estimates from almost all of the Chartered Banks continue to show British Columbia finishing 10th out of 10 provinces, the worst growth performance in the country through to 2004.

Even Coell’s colleague, Competition Minister Rick Thorpe seems to understand there is a problem here. His Ministry is contracting out the job of developing “an economic strategy for BC.” As the Times-Colonist‘s Les Leyne noted last week, 28 months into the mandate may be a little late to start looking for a plan. The government’s desperation is a reflection in itself of a deepening crisis.

There are a number of reasons for BC’s present economic malaise, beyond the failure of the BC Liberals’ ill-conceived tax and spending cut policies. From trade disputes to forest fires to international economic conditions, there are plenty of explanations to go around.

However, a period of high unemployment is simply the worst time to be slashing income assistance benefits for the poor. This is precisely the time individuals and communities need the social safety the most.

The BC Liberals’ time limit initiatives are based on similar American reform initiatives. However, the US 1996 Welfare Reform Act (which included a five-year time limit) was at least partly designed to get people off income assistance and into work through a series of incentives. Single parents and the unemployed often require daycare or training or both to have any hope of finding work. The amount of net government spending actually increases in most welfare reform models — be it BC Benefits or in the United States.

Welfare reform in the United States took place in relatively prosperous economic times. Even so, a recent report by the Children’s Defense Fund indicated that people forced off income supports were much more likely to face extreme poverty than find a full-time job. According to the report, “the number of jobless women not receiving welfare rose by 188,000 in one year leaving a record three quarters of all single mothers without public assistance and causing a sudden surge in extreme child poverty.”

The BC Liberal model is regressive even by US standards. Its only real purpose is to meet the government’s reduced spending targets.. Daycare programs have also been cut. All youth employment programs have been eliminated. Training is less accessible and increased tuition are a barrier to education for low-income people. This is not a plan of “welfare-to-work”, this is welfare-to-despair.

Indeed, the BC Liberals’ motivation may be justified more by politics than by economic or social policy.

Slashing income assistance is classic “wedge” issue, designed to mobilize voters against lazy income assistance recipients and aggressive anti-poverty activists. What else can we make of the Premier who lectures the City of Vancouver for allowing squatting with demands that they “enforce their by-laws” while cutting all forms of provincial support. The Premier finds it politically more profitable to sermonize on personal responsibility than to directly address the failure of his employment policies.

Murray Coell brags about reducing the number of people of income assistance. But cutting access to benefits is not reducing poverty. Forget the growing, record number of unemployed. You just need to walk down parts of Douglas Street or Columbia Street in New Westminster or streets in downtowns from Terrace to Vancouver to know that homelessness and poverty are on the rise.

Employed or unemployed, rich or poor, we must live together in our society. Only a privileged few can electrify their fences, hire security guards and attempt to isolate themselves from society’s problems. The rest of us need to support each other in difficult economic times and send the Premier and Murray Coell a clear message: this is not the time to pick on income assistance recipients.