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Challenging welfare

Accepting a challenge from an activist group, Jagrup Brar, NDP MLA for Surrey-Fleetwood is living on the $610 B.C. welfare rate for a month. He's spending part of his money living in an 11-foot by 11-foot room in the Downtown Eastside

Life, as Jagrup Brar knows it, will return to its familiar pace next Tuesday when he packs up his belongings and heads back to his Surrey home.

His wife Rajwant, daughter Noor, 11, and son Fateh, 4, will be waiting.

"I miss them very much," says Brar, the 52-year-old NDP MLA for Surrey-Fleetwood from his room Monday in a Downtown Eastside rooming house. "But it was my daughter who said to me, 'Do it and make a difference.'"

What Brar has been doing is attempting to live on $610 this month as part of a campaign organized by poverty activist group Raise The Rates. The $610 is what the provincial government doles out in welfare money to a single employable person to live on while searching for work. Brar spent the first half of January living in shelters and rooming houses in Surrey before moving to an 11-foot by 11-foot room on Jackson Street. He is the only MLA in the province to accept the challenge issued by Raise The Rates, whose members include local activists Jean Swanson, Bill Hopwood and Wendy Pedersen.

Their goal is simple: Have a politician shine the light on what they say are deplorably low welfare rates to convince the provincial government to-as the group's name demands-raise the rates.

If the campaign sounds familiar, it's because it is. Swanson helped organize a campaign in 1986 to have then-NDP MLA for Vancouver Centre Emery Barnes live on welfare for two months in the Downtown Eastside. His rate at the time was $350 a month.

Coincidentally, Barnes, who died in 1998, also resided on Jackson Street. "It raised awareness but I can't remember if anything happened to the rates afterwards," Swanson says. "If it did, it wasn't much. But we're hoping this will be different."

So far, the campaign has garnered plenty of media attention from newspaper, radio and television reporters. The coverage has shown Brar at meetings listening to people's stories about living on welfare, touring squalid single-room occupancy hotels and opening up his room to cameras.

A political publicity stunt, maybe?

Brar and Swanson call it a "public awareness campaign." And Brar, who earns $100,000 a year as an MLA, acknowledges he is not experiencing the full effect of what a person on welfare struggles with each day. "Having to live on $610 for the month is real," he says, sitting on his single bed inside his room that overlooks Oppenheimer Park. "What is not real is I don't have the fear, the humiliation, the embarrassment of living on welfare. I don't have the fear of being caught in this cycle, or worrying about my kids going to school hungry."

But Brar is careful to answer when asked if the welfare rates for a single employable person should be more than doubled from $610 to $1,300, as Raise The Rates suggests. "It would be irresponsible for me to announce policy," he says. "My plan is to bring information back to my caucus and make the case for a poverty reduction plan in this province."

The money Brar is living on this month is not his own.

Raise The Rates provided the $610 through fundraising. It settled on $400 for rent after splitting the difference on the $375 average rental rate in Surrey and the $425 average for a single-room occupancy hotel in Vancouver.

Another $42 was spent on bus passes, $20 for a security deposit on accommodations, $25 for phone costs and a further $15 was deducted because Brar didn't actually receive "a cheque" until Jan. 3; the holidays kept the welfare office closed until that date.

That left Brar with $108 to spend on food, toiletries and other costs for the month. As of Monday, he had $8 left and planned to buy eggs and bread.

His fridge doesn't work, so buying milk for his cereal would be wasteful. His tofu has gone bad and he has survived on oatmeal, instant noodles, carrots, peanut butter and tea. He brought a kettle, a fry pan, a plate, a bowl, a cup, a knife, fork and spoon (which he lost) from his Surrey home.

By chance, as he returned to his room from Pigeon Park over the weekend, he stopped outside the Carnegie Community Centre, where volunteers from a Sikh Temple in New Westminster were handing out free food. "This is what I'll have to do now because I won't have enough food to survive until the end of the month," he says. "You eat to survive when you're like this, not to lead a healthy life."

Brar is six-foot-four and a former member of the Indian National Basketball team. He had shed nine pounds off his 238-pound frame when he last weighed himself Jan. 16. His room is small for any person, let alone a man of his size. He has a sink, a few cupboards, a small closet, a rickety desk (which is too small for him), a shelf and an old chair.

Only one burner on his hotplate works, his bed cover is stained with blood spots (which he covered in tape) and he shares a bathroom-filthy with mold, peeling paint and brown drip stains on the walls from leaky ceiling pipes-with 11 other tenants on his floor. "It's tough physically, mentally and emotionally to be here," he says. "So what can you expect from a person in this situation to find work and be a productive citizen of society?"

When Brar spoke at recent meetings at the Carnegie and Strathcona community centres, he used statistics to make his point about poverty.

The first set of stats: The number of children living below the poverty line in B.C. in 2009 was 137,000. That statistic was revealed in a report issued last fall by First Call Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition. That report also revealed the number of children living in poverty soared by 16,000 over the previous year. The coalition's calculations led its authors to conclude that B.C.-for the eighth consecutive year-had the highest child poverty rate of any province.

The second set of stats: More than 90,000 people per month (32 per cent of whom are children) need the assistance of a food bank in B.C. each month. That statistic was revealed in Food Banks Canada's annual survey, which was released in March 2011.

At the Carnegie, Brar heard a myriad of complaints from people about the province's welfare system, including not getting enough money to properly raise children and having money docked from their cheques if they made a few bucks that month.

When meeting organizer Wendy Pedersen asked the 100 or so people gathered at the Carnegie how they "get by on welfare," the answers came in shouts.

"Bottles and cans."

"Work under the table."

"Underground economy."

"Sell pot."

A woman who identified herself as Victoria stood and told Brar she is raising three grandchildren. Her husband died of cancer in 1998. "People look at me like I'm doing alright," she says, adding that she does volunteer work. "But there are some nights where I have to go and eat at a drop-in centre so there's food in the fridge for the grandchildren." Adds Victoria: "It's an everyday struggle living on [income] assistance. It's not a walk in the park."

At the Strathcona Community Centre, Brar heard from Stacey Bonenfant, also a widow, who is raising two young boys, one of whom requires special needs. Bonenfant says she receives $1,450 in welfare per month and her rent at a co-op is $1,100.

"So you figure out the math on that," she says. "I can't go and make any money because I'm on regular welfare. So, if I borrow $20 from a friend because I need milk, or I try and make some money, they take every penny back."

Bonenfant says she worked last year as a coordinator at the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood House. She earned $20 an hour until she stopped working because of a disability, the details of which she didn't want to discuss. "It's just really hard for a lot of people," she says, adding that she has applied for a disability welfare rate that could translate to another $1,100 per month.

Statistics from the Ministry of Social Development indicate 178,128 people receive welfare in B.C., which is a 50 per cent drop from the mid-1990s.

Of that number, 24,723 receive the single employable rate of $610, the same amount Brar has attempted to live on this month. The majority of people receive the disability assistance rate of $906 a month.

The government last raised rates in April 2007, including a $100 increase from $510 to $610 for people who fit into Brar's category.

Rates for singles with "persistent multiple barriers" went from $608 to $658 per month and rates for people with disabilities jumped from $856 to $906. Rates for an employable single parent with one child increased from $846 to $946. The total budget for welfare in 2011-2012 is more than $1.5 billion. The government estimates a 10 per cent increase for all clients would cost $120 million per year. A 10 per cent hike to the $610 rate alone would cost $24 million.

Stephanie Cadieux, the minister responsible for the province's welfare system, says the government has no plans to raise welfare rates. "It's a careful balance we always have to find between what we are able to provide from a financial perspective and what taxpayers feel comfortable with, as well," she says by telephone. While acknowledging "making it on income assistance would be a struggle for anyone," Cadieux says B.C. has some of the most comprehensive supports in the country for people on welfare.

She rattles of a list that includes subsidized housing, childcare subsidies, rental assistance, reducing or eliminating health premiums and employment programs.

As for the $610 category that Brar chose to live within this month, Cadieux points out the money is for temporary assistance while a person searches for a job. "It is not meant to be a forever income," she says, adding the rate is the third highest for that category in the country.

The government's focus, she adds, is job creation and getting people back to work who are unemployed, including those on welfare. "We know that that's the better way to support people, so we're putting our emphasis there," she says, noting the average wage for a person who got off welfare and got a job through a government program is $14.38 an hour.

But what about the underground economy that people at the Carnegie talked about-isn't the government concerned about that?

"We don't want to encourage people to go into the underground economy and we need people to be honest and we also need people to report it when people are doing things that aren't legal."

Even so, she doesn't believe many people "cheat the system," although she admits there are flaws in the welfare program and it can always be improved. When asked how it could be improved and what changes she would implement, Cadieux replied, "I'm not sure at this point."

"It's an area of my portfolio that I'm just delving in to detail now," says Cadieux, who was appointed social development minister in September 2011. "I've been dealing with other parts of my portfolio and I think it is something that does require a good deal of work."

As an MLA, she could have agreed to the challenge by Raise the Rates to live on welfare for a month but declined because she doesn't believe "there's anything to be learned from doing it."

She stopped short of saying Brar's campaign is a publicity stunt, adding that her fellow Surrey MLA is obviously passionate about his cause.

"We know that it would be an incredible struggle-an incredible challenge-but I didn't feel the need to do something so public to feel that I understand how difficult a situation families or individuals are in."

Brar has a different take.

He uses the words "shocking" and "painful" to describe the stories he's heard and the squalor he's viewed in Surrey and Vancouver.

"This is the most powerful, impactful, heartbreaking experience I've had as an MLA," says Brar, who was elected to the legislature seven years ago. "We are a wealthy society and we can do better. And I think people of British Columbia want to do better, and that's the challenge."

Twenty six years ago, Barnes was speaking the same language after living on $350 a month. In an interview he gave a year later to the Canadian Parliamentary Review, he concluded, "It would take at least $700 a month to live even at a subsistence level."

And when asked about poverty, Barnes shied away from pointing fingers at any one political party for standing idly by as the population of impoverished people continues to grow. "It is a national and international problem. Its elimination is not the property of one party. So I have not condemned the government or anyone in society. There is a lack of will by all."

(Note: Raise The Rates says it gives free meal tickets to people in food lineups when Brar joins the line. The goal is to not keep a needy person from a meal. The rooming house in which Brar lives also had vacancies when he moved in, they say.)

Twitter: @Howellings