BALDRY: Low-income families feel the pinch

Every now and then an issue suddenly pops up in our political arena that leaves you scratching your head, wondering about the government's apparent lack of compassion and common sense.

One of those issues materialized in the legislature recently, and it involves single parents, disability assistance and child support payments.

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Here's the situation: a single mother lives on a $1,240 monthly disability allowance and receives $200 in a monthly child support payment from her expartner. Yet the government swoops in and takes that $200 back.

That $200, of course, is much more precious to someone on such a low income. For someone getting $1,200 or so a month, that's almost 20 per cent of their income.

The government argues this policy of deducting maintenance payment from income assistance programs "ensures that people are accessing all other forms of income before relying on taxpayer-funded income assistance."

However, it is unclear exactly how people on disability assistance are expected to "access all other forms of income" given their particular disability may prevent them from actually working.

Thousands of people appear to be caught in this catch-22. Some presumably are having a far tougher time making ends meet than others, but most are mired in deep poverty.

Recently, six of those people - all single mothers - came to the legislature to make their case. And the six women all had sympathetic tales to tell.

Surrey resident Rachel Goodine has a court order stipulating her ex-partner must pay $500 a month to assist their four-yearold daughter. But the government takes it all, leaving her with $1,241 in assistance that has to cover $800 in rent, leaving just over $400 to pay for food, clothing, toiletries, phone and transportation.

That $500 is supposed to assist in the raising of her daughter, but not a penny actually goes to help her. And not a penny of Crystal Pennicard's $145 monthly child support payment goes to help her two daughters aged five and 11.

Their stories were all fairly bleak. One Burnaby woman says out of desperation she stayed in an abusive relationship with a man because he provided enough food for her children (she left after a year because it became too much for her, and now is back to existing on practically nothing).

Another woman admitted to reporters that she has been in such desperate straits that she once shoplifted diapers and baby wipes, resulting in her now having a criminal record.

One woman, Dianne Terrillon, found herself caught in a dire situation when her son's father fell six months behind in his payments. To his credit, he eventually paid up almost $1,200 but the entire amount was then deducted from her next disability cheque, reducing her monthly payment to a paltry $49 to cover her family's expenses for an entire month.

In the legislature chamber, NDP MLA Michelle Mungall cited the plight of these women and made a persuasive case that the claw back policy should be revisited. She pressed the issue with Social Development Minister Don McRae, to the point where he seemed to lose his temper during question period.

Mungall also chastised Premier Christy Clark for her defense of the claw back, at one point accusing her of "smirking" about the whole thing (a comment Mungall was forced to withdraw).

McRae was more contrite with reporters afterwards, pleading the case that his ministry simply didn't have a big enough budget to forgo the child support claw backs. Eliminating the claw backs would cost $17 million annually, which is not an insignificant amount of money.

But perhaps the solution here is to establish some sort of financial threshold that would allow single parents (mostly mothers) on disability assistance to keep at least some portion of those child support payments.

Perhaps the threshold could be set at $200 a month, or $300, which represents a huge amount of money for someone trying to raise a child on a meager monthly assistance cheque.

Sometimes a government simply refuses to acknowledge a problem or a solution just because it has been raised by the Opposition. Hopefully that's not what's happening here.

The premier continues to insist her government is all about protecting the interests of families. She has a chance here to demonstrate just that, by revisiting a policy that hurts the most vulnerable of those same families.

Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global BC. Keith.Baldrey@globalnews.ca

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