Fletcher: Choosing work instead of welfare

The B.C. government has taken some modest steps to tighten up income assistance and encourage people to work when they are able to.

The B.C. government has taken some modest steps to tighten up the province’s income assistance system, and to encourage people to work when they are able to.

With Premier Christy Clark swooping in to take credit, Social Development Minister Stephanie Cadieux unveiled changes that included fixing the worst mistake in B.C. Liberal policy. Cadieux acknowledged that B.C. was the only province that clawed back all earnings from employable welfare recipients, and she announced that from now on they will be able to earn up to $200 a month without penalty.

The exemption for disabled people is increased from $500 to $800 a month.

Another important change is requiring welfare recipients to file income tax returns.

People can now do temporary work when it comes along, report the income and take advantage of the various tax credits that come from participating in society instead of just living off it. Any experience earning money is valuable experience.

With baby boomers starting to retire in big numbers, the expected labour shortage has begun across Western Canada. And yet, increasing numbers of foreign workers are coming in to do farm and other work, while many young people are unemployed.

Finance Minister Kevin Falcon took note of this during his budget preparations. Increasing numbers of young, employable people were applying for welfare in southern B.C., while jobs go begging in the booming northeast. Falcon mused about setting up a program to provide training and plane fare for these people, an idea quickly dubbed “welfare air.”

Another effort to get young people working is Jobfest, a rock-themed road show currently touring northern B.C. towns. It attracts young people with music and souvenirs like drumsticks and guitar picks, and offers them skills assessment using sexy iPad apps and graphics that depict carpentry as cool.

If Jobfest and welfare air sound a bit desperate, it’s because they are. They illustrate our society’s problem. We have a public school system where students pass whether they do the work or not. The culture assumes self-esteem is more important than achievement. The teachers’ union constantly sets an example that the way to get what you want is to stamp your feet and demand it from government.

What do we expect young people to learn?

And how easy is it for B.C. to slip into a Greece-like tailspin, where a majority expects to be carried on the backs of the shrinking minority who do productive work?

Old-timers might recall when Mike Harcourt’s NDP government took over from the allegedly miserly Social Credit regime and raised welfare rates.

They compounded that mistake by relaxing eligibility rules and making it easier for employable people to stay on welfare. After a couple of years of this wealth redistribution, 10 per cent of the B.C. population was on welfare, with more piling on every day.

Faced with the results of this staggering blunder, Harcourt lashed out at “cheats, deadbeats and varmints” scamming B.C. taxpayers and launched a crackdown on fraud. Later the NDP cut the basic rate for single employables to $500 a month.

Today it stands at $610, and the NDP looks poised to repeat history. Surrey MLA Jagrup Brar did a month-long publicity stunt in January, living on welfare by wandering from shelter to food bank with TV cameras trailing behind.

Brar would have been better off if welfare air had been available. Instead of learning to live off the burgeoning urban handout industry, he could have gone up to Dawson Creek or Fort St. John and worked as a labourer.