Low wages, the Canadian way to prosperity

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Good public policy starts with the individual without income and ensures they have a good place to live, a clothing allowance, first aid, health and nutrition counselling, and help finding work.

Imagine a society that has a public policy choice to make about help for those most in need. The first avenue is more costly, does a lot of direct harm to citizens, and exaggerates already dreadful social problems associated with homelessness, such as ill health, or substance abuse.

The second choice is more generous, treats people as citizens with urgent needs that can be filled and spares no effort to come to their assistance.

Recent research from the B.C. office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives shows how the first choice has worked out in B.C.

In 2002 the recently elected Liberal government of Gordon Campbell decided to cut expenditures.Justice Ted Hughes has just reported on the impact of those cuts on provincial programs for children at risk. He links frightening cases of child deaths to the policy choices of the Campbell government, and in a press conference pointed the finger at the premier himself.

The Hughes report was widely publicized and the government claims to be ready to implement his suggested changes to the child protection system.

The cuts to the Employment and Income Assistance ministry have just been analyzed by the CCPA.The government has dismissed the report. Surprisingly, the opposition NDP has so far not taken up the issues raised by report authors Seth Klein and Andrea Smith.

Yet B.C. does not allow welfare recipients to earn any income, thus eliminating the incentive to retain a partial link to paid work, and actually claws back support payments paid by former spouses to single parents on welfare. Using heartless techniques such as these, the government took back over $92 million from welfare recipients in the two years ending in March 2004, according to the CCPA authors' estimates.

Their report, Budget Savings on the Backs of the Poor, shows how a single parent lost as much as $395 a month in welfare benefits when changes were introduced to the welfare system by the 2002 cuts.

Overall, welfare recipients today must make do with a lower dollar amount than 12 years ago. Add in inflation and subsistence support has been cut by 30 per cent.

The CCPA attached a poll question to a regular IPSOS Reid survey of B.C. residents. When informed what people were getting on welfare, and asked about increasing the amount, 74 per cent agreed it should be raised.

A new CCPA study by former National Welfare Council Director Steve Kerstetter shows the lack of any connection between basic needs of welfare recipients and the level of assistance. He argues for an independent body, which would include low-income people, to establish welfare rates. At present only Newfoundland adjusts welfare rates to account for inflation.

A CCPA study from last month, Denied Assistance, documents how the principle of assisting those most in need has been tossed aside by new B.C. government measures and practices such as the use of the internet and telephone instead of personal contact to interview people in difficulty. Whereas 95 per cent of applications used to succeed, B.C. now rejects welfare requests from about half the people in desperate straights. This alone explains the appalling rise in the homeless and why people ransacking garbage bins are a common site in Vancouver.

Good public policy starts with the individual without income and ensures they have a good place to live, a clothing allowance, first aid, health and nutrition counseling, and assistance in finding work. Get people back on their feet and save the costs down the road of police, medical and hospital interventions. Be generous now, and save money over time.

So why do we not have good public policy? The explanation lies in the subservience of government to business. The desire to make welfare as inaccessible as possible, and below the standards needed for well-being is linked to a conscious policy to keep wages low.

This policy objective explains the 1990s fight against the so-called deficit, through high interest rates, and expenditure cuts, including the federal budget of 1995 that threw out a 30-year commitment to ensure no one was left behind, through its abandoning of cost sharing, and national standards for welfare. Low wage policy still drives the daily war against the poor at the provincial level.

Low wages, the Canadian way to prosperity. You would think a political party could come up with a better policy, explain it, and fight for it.

Over to you Carol James and the B.C. NDP.

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