Bad Math: The truth about poverty in British Columbia

What would your life look like if you had only $3 a day for food? With only $3 you wouldn’t be able to shop at Whole Foods, Choices, Nesters or even the Farmer’s Market. You certainly would not be able to buy organic, free range or cruelty free. You wouldn’t be able to buy $2 Starbucks coffees or ever go for take-out. You might not even be able to afford fresh produce. At my local Nesters, a non-organic red pepper costs $2. A non-organic apple costs $1. Looking at my own food bill for the last 30 days, I spent $312.19. That’s $10.41 per day, just for me.

So what can you buy for $21 per week? Participants of the Welfare Food Challenge had to find out.

Welfare Food Challenge

1441974_53809405The Welfare Food Challenge is a yearly campaign conducted by Raise the Rates to raise awareness about the reality of life on welfare and how much change is needed for people living in poverty. The Challenge has participants experience one aspect of what it means to be a recipient of welfare, lack of food security.

The participants can only spend $21 on food for the week and they may not rely on food banks, friends or family or use any food products in their home like salt, pepper or hot sauce that they did not purchase with the $21.

Here are some examples of what $21 can buy.

Bif Naked used her $21 to buy: brown rice, 2 cans of chickpeas, 2 heads of (non-organic) iceberg lettuce, a pint of cherry tomatoes, six zucchinis, six bananas and a bag of (non-organic) spinach.

Kate Kysow, another participant, used her $21 to buy: a can of peas and carrots, a can of maple beans, brown sugar, Quaker Oats, coconut oil, chickpeas, eggs, milk, rice, rice cakes and bananas.

The Numbers

As a social justice lawyer, many of my clients are recipients of some sort of income assistance. And I can tell you from experience that many of my clients would be very happy if they had $21 for food each week. In reality, they often have a lot less. To fully appreciate what it is like to live on welfare, it is helpful to review the numbers.

In British Columbia, the welfare rate is $610 per month for a single adult. This is made up of a maximum shelter allowance of $375 per month plus $235 for everything else. Welfare rates were last raised in April 2007. Allowing for inflation, a single person on welfare is $60 a month worse off than in 2007. By contrast, your MLA’s pay has gone up 34% since 2007.1

Since 2010, between 174,000 and 184,000 British Columbians have been on welfare every month. In 2013, 20% of welfare recipients were dependent children.2

Is it possible to live in British Columbia, safely and securely, for $610 a month? The resounding answer to that question is no. And here’s why. According to the Canada Mortgage Housing Corporation, the average rent for a bachelor suite in Greater Vancouver is $876 per month. In the lowest rent areas, the average is $630 per month.1 That is more than the monthly welfare rate.

815892_67861026Single Room Occupancy (SRO) hotel rooms have traditionally been considered the housing of last resort before homelessness. These tiny hotel rooms do not have a private kitchen or bathroom and often have poor management, mice, rats, cockroaches and bedbugs. This year, the average rent for an SRO was $469 per month.3

Finding an SRO willing to accept someone on welfare is a different matter altogether. Increasingly, management of these accommodations are trying to get rid of tenants on income assistance and market the units to students and working people. The Carnegie Community Action Project’s 2013 report found that last year alone, 236 rooms were lost to low income people.3

And what about the cost of food. In 2011, the Dieticians of Canada put out a report entitled “Cost of Eating in BC.” This report set out the provincial average cost of nutritious food for families of various sizes. For a single man between the ages of 31-50, the cost per month for nutritious food is $243.59. For a woman of the same age, the cost is $206.00.4

So let’s do some simple addition. $469 for an average SRO, plus $206 for nutritious food is $675 per month. That is $65 more than the monthly welfare rate. And this does not include any other expenses. I looked at my visa bill to see what else I pay for in a month. I came up with the following list: bus pass, cellphone, internet, electricity, water, laundry, tenant’s insurance, car insurance, personal hygiene, clothing, student loans, medical and dental. And these are just what I consider my essentials, I also pay for haircuts, Netflix, a gym membership, field hockey dues, the occasional Starbucks coffee and going out for dinner or drinks with my friends and family.


The poverty line is defined as the estimated minimum level of income needed to secure the necessities of life. One would think that welfare rates would meet this threshold. Not so. Estimates based on data from 2011 show that in BC, two-parent families with two children on income assistance will live $21,287 a year below the poverty line. Lone-parent families with one child will live $11,602 a year below the poverty line.5

Looking at the numbers, I understand why my clients often tell me that they have to choose between a roof over their head and a full stomach. The government’s math simply does not make sense. I guess that explains why every year BC food banks help about 100,000 people, the majority of whom are women and children.6

British Columbia’s Dirty Secret

606709_78930809Having seen the numbers, it should come as no surprise that BC is the worst province in Canada when it comes to major measures of poverty. We have an overall provincial poverty rate of 15.6%. The highest rate in Canada. Our child poverty rate is 18.6%. We have had the worst child poverty rate for 10 of the last 11 years.6 We also have the most unequal distribution of income among rich and poor families with children and a shocking rate of poverty for children living in single mother-led families at 49.8%.6

Despite these statistics, the provincial government has refused to follow the lead of almost every other Canadian province and territory by implementing a comprehensive poverty reduction strategy. When such a plan was proposed by a member of the opposition in May 2014, Premier Christie Clark stated that her government does not believe such a strategy is necessary.

At the same time, the government continues to support policies that keep families poor such as the child support claw back. Unlike other kids, children whose parents are on welfare do not benefit from child support paid by the non-custodial parent. The government deducts child support payments dollar for dollar from the mother’s welfare cheque. This means parents on welfare do not get to use this extra money for nutritious food, a more secure roof over their family’s head or other things that would improve their children’s quality of life like extra-curricular activities, books or toys. The government, it would seem, is intent on keeping the poorest British Columbians poor.

The Cost of Poverty

These policies should concern us. Not only out of compassion for the people on welfare who cannot afford both a roof over their head and nutritious food, but because they cost the rest of us a hell of a lot of money.

In 2011, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) put out a report entitled “The Cost of Poverty in BC.” In this report, the CCPA calculated the yearly cost of poverty in this province. Poverty is consistently linked to poor health, lower literacy, poor school performance for children, more crime and greater stress for family members.   Society as a whole bears the costs of poverty through higher public health care costs, increased policing and crime costs, lost productivity and foregone economic activity. The estimates presented in the report are conservative and yet the estimated cost of poverty is $8.1 to $9.2 billion dollars a year. By contrast, the cost of a comprehensive poverty reduction plan in BC would be only $3 to $4 billion per year. The plan would include policies like investing in new social housing, increasing welfare or implementing universal access to child care. Sounds like a bargain to me.7

If you would like more information about these numbers, here is a short video that summarizes the report.

Sadly, this research has been out since 2011 and the government is still denying that a poverty reduction strategy is necessary. Meanwhile, British Columbians continue to foot the bill for the government’s inaction. And so, every year, in an attempt to raise awareness and put public pressure on the government, Raise the Rates holds the Welfare Food Challenge. Were this year’s participants successful? Here is what some of them had to say:

“Today was the worst. For the entire day I felt so helplessly tired, and like half of my brain was gone and the rest was washed out. I walked and moved slowly, took much longer to do the same tasks, forgot things, and made mistakes. The severe, sustained fatigue is something different from the attacks of restlessness, anxiety, and irritability I experienced from hunger. I am perhaps, on the sixth day, starting to see signs of prolonged or repeated hunger / malnutrition.” – Sieun Lee, Day 6

“I am irritable dizzy, wanting to isolate but feeling left out. My work duties are suffering and this is no fun. Conclusion = We as a society are punishing the less fortunate for having the courage to ask for help.” – Tammy Battersby, Day 5

And this was after just 5-6 days, with a whole $21, which is more than many welfare recipients will actually have for food. For some, this is reality. I can’t imagine what it would be like to have to choose between food and a home. No one should ever have to make that choice. So enough with apathy. It’s time to make fighting poverty a priority. It’s time we demand that our government stop neglecting our most vulnerable citizens and, for goodness’ sake, RAISE THE RATES.



  1. Raise the Rates Report of 2013: Raise the Rates
  2. BC Employment and Assistance Summary Report: Ministry of Social Development and Social Innovation
  3. Carnegie Community Action Project’s 2013 Hotel Survey and Housing Report: Rory Sutherland, Jean Swanson and Tamara Herman
  4. Cost of Eating in BC: Dieticians of Canada
  5. West Coast LEAF 2014 CEDAW Report Card: West Coast LEAF
  6. West Coast LEAF 2013 CEDAW Report Card: West Coast LEAF
  7. The Cost of Poverty in BC: Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives