Opinion

COLUMN: Hard to live on $610 alone

I applaud Surrey-Fleetwood MLA Jagrup Brar for making the effort to live on welfare for a month.

Chances are he won’t get too far without help from others, which he will almost certainly receive.

It is impossible for most people to get by on $610 a month, at a time when rents are so high.

Even the most basic of accommodation in Surrey or most areas of the Lower Mainland will cost over $400 a month, and that doesn’t get you very much. Almost no apartments or basement suites are available for that rate –  it’s usually just a room, and no board.

The sheer cost of housing means there is little left over for other basics, such as food, medicine and transportation.

It’s a key reason why the food bank is so busy, and has become a necessity for many people. In other words, the generosity of people all over the community is taking the place of government welfare for those who are unable to work and have no other sources of income.

Brar will also find it difficult to get around. Assuming he plans to live in Surrey, rather than Vancouver or Burnaby, he will find it tough to take transit, as so many areas in Surrey are poorly served by TransLink.

Even those areas that are serviced have infrequent service, and on the busiest routes, passengers are often left standing at bus stops as full ones go sailing by.

He may not have much spare money for transit either. With one-way full fares at $5 to go from Surrey to Vancouver, it’s a luxury for many with limited incomes to be able to use transit more than a few times a month.

As for medicine, how do people with such limited incomes get access to medicine? Yes, there are government programs to help pay for pharmaceuticals, but what about other non-prescription items?

I also hope Brar doesn’t simply adopt the standard NDP position that welfare rates must automatically be increased. The issue is a little more complex than that.

The party has been saying this for years – yet when the party actually forms government, as it has done three times in the past in this province, the welfare rate rarely improves. The Glen Clark government actually bragged about how it had cut some people off welfare.

The welfare rates were $500 per month in 1991, when the NDP became government. Ten years and four premiers later, after winning two straight elections, the NDP had raised the rates by a whole $10. In the past decade, they have risen by $100.

However, in 2001, the cost of housing was far less than it is today. The BC Liberals have brought in a number of innovative housing programs under the leadership of Housing Minister Rich Coleman, who is likely the most active housing minister in B.C. history.

One of those programs is a shelter allowance for working people with low incomes, which is a rent subsidy. Yet there remains a severe lack of affordable housing.

Surrey is not alone in this regard, although Surrey has less social housing – by far – on a per-capita basis than cities like Vancouver or Burnaby.

The best outcome for Brar and for people on welfare, from his month-long experiment, could be the fact that an elected representative will have experienced the day-to-day challenges that many people, not just those on welfare, deal with – every single day.

Hopefully, he will also discover, from talking to others in those circumstances, the particular problems that face people with low incomes.

If he is able to start to develop an innovative approach to the challenges facing people with low incomes, particularly housing, would be welcome.

It could be of considerable help to his party as it crafts an election platform for next year’s vote.

Frank Bucholtz writes Thursdays for the Peace Arch News. He is the editor of the Langley Times.

 

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