Updated: Mar 1
Loyal Wooldridge of Kelowna (left) and Jean Swanson of Vancouver (right)
By Spencer van Vloten
Spencer van Vloten talked with councillors Wooldridge and Swanson about why they're calling for change, and what they have to say to critics.
Spencer: Why is increasing social assistance so important?
Loyal: Our communities are only as strong as our most vulnerable members, and as communities we must look to overcome extreme social challenges stemming from poverty. We need to support programs and measures which do this, and this includes raising the rates which are keeping people poor.
"Our communities are only as strong as our most vulnerable members"
Jean: The social assistance rates now are, what’s the proper word, deplorable. The purpose of having social assistance is so people can subsist if they aren't able to have an income, but the current rates aren’t enough to do that. They haven’t been substantially increased in eons, and people and cities have suffered as a result.
"Social assistance rates now are, what's the proper word, deplorable"
Spencer: What specifically caused you to bring this forward?
Loyal: I was contacted by a member of the community with disability, who explained the lack of increases, and how the $300 COVID supplement made such a big difference in her life. This all linked back to Kelowna's Journey Home project to prevent homelessness, where the number one pillar is prevention. By raising the rates, we can help keep people out of poverty in the first place.
Jean: The Vancouver council had already passed motions to raise assistance rates to market levels, and I thought with the provincial budget coming in April it was time to put more pressure on the government. $300 has a good precedent with it having been the amount of the provincial COVID supplement.
I worked with Christine Boyle to draft the op-ed piece calling for the extra $300 to be permanent, and everyone on council supported it. Even the conservative members supported it, because everyone on council knows that social assistance isn’t enough to live on in BC.
Spencer: Keeping in mind that the decision is up to the province and not the cities, what impact do you hope this can have?
Loyal: Bringing attention to the matter is the first step. As local governments, we know our communities best, so when we have local leaders bring forward concerns of communities it shines light on the issue. Our current government is showing that investing in social issues can have benefits, but there's still more to do for people on social assistance, and this message needs to be clear.
Jean: The best impact would be for it to raise the rates, by a minimum of $300. CERB (Canadian Emergency Response Benefit) shows that people shouldn’t be living on less than $2000 a month, and that’s what it should be eventually, but $300 would be a good step. Cities can't cope with the poverty created by low rates, and far too many people are homeless, not able to eat properly, and barely getting by or not getting by at all.
"Cities can't cope with the poverty created by the low rates"
Spencer: Among the criticisms raised of city councils calling for an increase are that (1) cities shouldn't be raising provincial issues, (2) the exact amount of money needed hasn't been presented, and (3) it's not clear where the money would come from. How do you respond to these concerns?
Loyal: As a municipality we advocate to the provincial government all the time without knowing exact operating costs, so I disagree that it’s wrong on that front. People can also point fingers and say it's someone else's responsibility, but we're supposed to advocate for our constituents and bring their concerns forward no matter what the level of government is.
People can...say it's someone else's responsibility, but we're supposed to advocate for our constituents no matter what the level of government is
Jean: One of the jobs of municipal councils is to advocate for citizens at higher levels of government, and it's even in the council charter, so the idea that we shouldn't be touching provincial issues is nonsense.
If I were the king, I would implement a COVID profit tax on big companies that have profited from the pandemic, like Amazon. We should also have a progressive tax on the rich, wealth tax, and capital gains tax, especially on people who have gotten wealthy without creating value. Even as it stands, with the government's current revenue streams, investing in social assistance would save money by reducing the costs associated with poverty.
"If I were the king, I would implement a COVID profit tax on big companies that have profited from the pandemic"
Spencer: What’s your message to other councillors, and to MLAs in BC about this issue?
Loyal: Become educated about prevention, so we can get ahead of the 8 ball. Too much that happens in government is reactionary; we need to look upstream at how to prevent issues like homelessness from occurring, and raising the rates is part of this.
And don’t be afraid to step outside your lane and realize you can advocate for your community, no matter who you are or what level of government you represent.
Jean: Simple: If we had higher social assistance rates, it would make it a lot easier for you to run a city.
Spencer van Vloten is the editor of BC Disability. To get in touch, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org!