COLUMN: Inflation giveth and taketh away

Without the help of a well-meaning person or non-profit, you can’t find a place to live in Abbotsford for $375/month

Without the help of a well-meaning person or non-profit, you can’t find a place to live in Abbotsford for $375/month. You know this, I know this, and the provincial government knows this too.

Nevertheless, that’s how much “employable” people on income assistance get for housing.

It’s been like that since 2007.

Two weeks ago, volunteers around the city endeavoured to count all of Abbotsford’s homeless people. The results of that count are now in, and, unsurprisingly, there are a whole lot more people who don’t have housing.

Now, there’s an argument to be made that even if people on income assistance had more money, they would still be on the outside looking in, given how scarce housing is these days. And that’s probably true in the short term.

But the best way to increase the housing stock is to have private developers see that it’s in their interest to build rental apartments that may just be affordable to those on welfare. Giving those on social assistance $375 to put towards housing does not do that.

I asked Finance Minister (and Abbotsford West MLA) Mike de Jong about this a few weeks ago. He said the government is focusing on getting people off social assistance and into jobs. Which is a fine goal, although I doubt the ease with which the chronically jobless can find permanent employment.

Either way, the fact is: if you’re not raising social assistance rates, then you’re essentially cutting them. Inflation affects poor people too.

In 2007, the BC Liberal government decided that those on social assistance deserved $375 per month for housing, and another $235 for general living expenses. Those figures weren’t tied to inflation, and so every year, that $610 buys less food, fewer clothes, and ever-more hypothetical housing options. If you think the 2007 government of the day was overly generous to those on social assistance, that’s fine. But the BC Liberals of nine years ago obviously thought the welfare rates were set correctly, and yet didn’t link them to inflation.

But here’s something they did peg to inflation in 2007: their own pay.

Other governments have followed suit – including Abbotsford city council. It makes sense, it turns out, to tie income rates to how much that money can buy. It’s also not that hard.

So why do politicians’ salaries rise with inflation, while social assistance rates do not?

An idealist might suggest it’s because politicians’ pay takes up just a tiny amount of any one government’s budget, and so small yearly increases do not end up throwing a budget off. Forms of social assistance, on the other hand, cost significantly more money. It’s fiscally prudent, some will say, to limit such expenses until the province knows it can cover the cost.

A cynic, on the other hand… Well, politician pay hikes are unpopular. If one can avoid a vote on them, all the better. And if a government does decide to regularly increase welfare or disability rates, it’s not going to forego the photo ops, press releases and handshakes.

– Tyler Olsen is a reporter with the Abbotsford News