Sonia Furstenau

Sonia Furstenau column: One-time COVID Relief Benefit not enough

Inequality is a systemic issue, and it needs solutions that are also systemic.

By Sonia Furstenau

There has been an extraordinary amount of generosity this year. We can see it in the record-breaking donations to food banks here in Cowichan and across the province. In times of crisis, food banks have proven to be incredibly important for food security for individuals and families in our province. Our local food banks are serving a new type of client: people who have never used a food bank before. But what we need to be striving for, is a province that doesn’t need food banks because we have ended poverty.

COVID-19 has not only highlighted inequality in our society, but in many ways exacerbated it. Billionaires have seen their wealth increase, while people with the least have been more likely to lose their jobs and see their costs of living increase.

Inequality is a systemic issue, and it needs solutions that are also systemic. Unfortunately, what we are seeing from the newly elected majority NDP government are steps in the wrong direction.

In order to fulfill Premier John Horgan’s campaign promise, the NDP government brought the Legislature back for a two-week session in December to pass a bill that adds $2 billion in supplementary funds to the 2020-2021 budget.

According to the government, between $1.3 and $1.7 billion of those funds will be used to deliver the $1,000/household or $500/individual COVID benefit. While many people who need support through these difficult winter months will benefit from this one-time payment, the program has many flaws, including using 2019 income tax returns as the measure for qualifying for the benefit. For people who lost their jobs in 2020, and who need the extra support, they may qualify for significantly less, or not at all, based on their 2019 income. And for many, the requirement of multiple documents as part of the application process is proving to be stressful and challenging.

What was not mentioned during the election campaign was that the NDP would reduce by half the $300 COVID Emergency Benefit that has been provided to people on Income Assistance and Disability Assistance since March 2020. This has been an unwelcome surprise for many who are struggling to make ends meet during this very challenging year.

The BC Greens have advocated for the full $300/month to be made permanent, and for significant reforms to be made to Income and Disability Assistance programs in B.C., informed by the important research and work underway by the Basic Income Task Force, which will be releasing a report before the end of this year.

For too many people in B.C., the government programs that are supposed to lift people out of poverty are instead trapping them in poverty. The assistance rates are extremely low — well below the poverty line — and rather than incentivize people to seek additional income, the programs tend to be punitive. As soon as people earn even a modest amount of additional income, they are faced with clawbacks to income assistance and support programs.

When I asked the finance minister about how the COVID Benefit fits into the overall poverty-reduction strategies of her government, she replied that the COVID Relief Benefit is a “temporary, one-time” allocation of funds.

I would argue that this is an approach that does not serve the province in the long run. Had the government chosen to be strategic with its spending of these funds, they could have delivered measurable outcomes for people who need the most support in our province. Instead, the most vulnerable have to make do with less at a time when their costs will continue to rise.

There is a great deal of work to do to end the widening gap between rich and poor in B.C., and it should be a top priority of this new government. These first decisions are worrying, but if they are willing to listen to the recommendations of the Basic Income Task Force and truly recognize the shortcomings of the existing programs, it will be possible to take effective action on this front in the months and years to come.

Sonia Furstenau is the MLA for the Cowichan Valley.