By Kevin Groves, Canadian University Press
VANCOUVER (CUP) –A little more than a year after the B.C. provincial government overhauled their welfare system, food bank workers say they are struggling to cope with thousands more people lining up to put dinner on their tables. It’s a disturbing trend that reflects a lack of public awareness of what it’s like to be poor, say food bank workers.
“People don’t realize how bad it is until you fall to that level,” says Susan Henry, who works at the First United Church in Vancouver, which provides emergency food every three months for families and the disabled. “Quite a number of people think it’s not really bad so you can turn a blind eye to it.”
Henry’s comment seems to reinforce the argument of one expert who says food banks make it easier for governments to reduce taxpayer help for the poor. Graham Riches, director of the UBC school of social work, says they ought to be closed.
In April 2002, the B.C. government introduced significant changes to the welfare system that reduced benefits, made it tougher to claim welfare and imposed new limits and cost-saving restrictions for many of those on social assistance. The government hopes to cut about 80,000 people from welfare by 2004, reducing the $1.9 billion budget to about $1.4 billion. In March, British Columbia had 121,079 welfare cases — down from 241,643 cases in March of 2002, according to Statistics B.C.
“They want to create as many disincentives to be on welfare as possible,” says Riches.
The changes cut benefits to single parents, employable couples and recipients between 55 and 64, imposed a three-week waiting period before welfare can be collected and placed new time limits on collecting welfare.
Those changes have had a direct effect on the number of people using British Columbia’s 90 food banks, says Robin Campbell, who runs the food bank in Surrey, a sprawling Vancouver suburb of more than 300,000. Campbell says B.C. food banks have experienced an increase in demand of five to 40 per cent in the last year as welfare becomes harder to live on, especially in small, one-industry towns or communities that lost their local provincial government office.
“The overall feeling is one of desperation and anger,” says Campbell. “People are even saying ‘you know maybe I should just commit a crime and go to jail, at least then I’ll have enough to eat.’ ”
But Human Resources Minister Murray Coell says many of the welfare recipients his ministry has shed over the last two years have gone back to work. They’re making more now than they would on income assistance, whether they use the food bank or not, he says.
The rising usage of food banks is also nationwide and not just related to his ministry’s changes, says Coell.
For Riches, food banks started out as a well-intentioned effort to feed hungry people in the 1980s but have become a crutch for government and society. “Essentially they’ve become a second-tier of the welfare system and enable governments to look the other way and neglect their obligations to make sure that people have a decent social wage,” Riches says. “Food banks are in a sense telling us that Canada’s welfare state has failed.”
It’s gotten worse in the last 10 years as shrinking government and cutbacks to social programs have become policy in most provinces, says Riches. “We’ve gotten used to the idea that food banks are OK,” he says. “But I think if you speak to people on the receiving end they’ll have a different view of what that experience is like.”
Canada’s first food bank opened its doors in Edmonton in 1981. By 1998, more than 17,000 people a month relied on its services. The number of users had more than doubled from 1993, when the Alberta government began an extensive campaign of social service cutbacks.
Henry says she isn’t sure what would change if all food bank support were taken away. “Then we would see the starkness of poverty and you’d either have a revolution or you’d see people dying on the streets all the time,” she says.
Statistics Canada defines low-income families as those who spend more than 55 per cent of their before-tax income on the basic necessities –food, shelter and clothing. For a family of four in a large city of more than half a million, $34,572 is the cutoff. The same family in a rural area would be considered low-income at $23,892.
The latest federal data from the 2001 census shows families in the bottom 10 per cent of the income scale — those with incomes below $18,990 — experienced one of the smallest gains over the decade. Even after adjusting for inflation, the average Canadian family at the lowest end of the scale gained only $81 in income, up just 0.8 per cent from 1991 to $10,346.