Accessible Knowledge on Income Assistance
Kim Mackenzie is a Masters of Public Policy student at Simon Fraser University and has a background in Psychology and Critical Criminology. At the end of her internship with LEDlab and Potluck Cafe, Kim reflects on her experience researching income assistance policy and its impacts on social hiring in the DTES.
Four months ago, if you had told me that I would still be learning new things about income assistance policy and legislation in British Columbia after months of studying it, I would have never believed you. How could I possibly still have questions about how income assistance works in BC after spending over 16 weeks immersing myself in policy manuals and legislation? I have had countless conversations with social enterprise employers and community organizations from the Downtown Eastside (DTES) about how income assistance policies affect their employees and program participants. In these conversations, there are always questions. When do people lose their assistance? What exactly is needed to get onto the Persons with Persistent and Multiple Barriers program? When do Persons with Disabilities stop receiving their medical benefits? When exactly do people feel the repercussions of clawbacks?
It is the last day of my internship today, and there are still questions I can’t answer. In fact, there are still questions that Ministry of Social Development and Social Innovation employees can’t answer. Just this week, I had to clarify an important detail in order to complete a resource guide for employers who hire people on income assistance. I call the toll free information line to find the answer because I certainly can’t find it on the Ministry’s website.
“All Ministry representatives are busy. The wait time is currently one hour and 16 minutes. If you’d like to leave a callback number where you can be reached, press 1.”
Good thing I have a personal phone, because who has time to wait that long? To me, my question is simple, but the same question would likely be stress-inducing for someone receiving income assistance.
One hour and 26 minutes later, I get a call-back. I ask my question: “when do people categorized as Persons with Disabilities stop receiving monthly assistance cheques after having earned their annual exemption of $9600?”
The Ministry employee asks in a friendly tone: “Have you looked on our website?”
I have spent endless hours on that website. By the end of the day I can have anywhere from four to 16 tabs open on my internet browser. This is usually because the more I read, the more questions I have. It also doesn’t help that very rarely are there clickable links when the website refers me to another page. I make it clear that I have scoured the website and cannot find my answer. I explain in more detail exactly what I am looking to find out.
“I think the question you have is a little too complicated for the nature and length of this phone call,” says the Ministry employee.
It is at this point I truly empathize with the many people who struggle to get important and reliable information regarding something on which they rely on to meet their basic needs. And I have a computer with the internet and a personal cell phone, technological conveniences that are hard to come by in the DTES, particularly for people struggling to balance the low levels of income assistance against the high cost of living in Vancouver.
My conversations in the community show that there is a real lack of information and – sometimes even worse – a great amount of misinformation on income assistance. If it is not clear to people how much they can work before losing their benefits, or when exactly a clawback on their assistance cheque occurs, it disempowers them from taking control of their lives and making decisions that best suit their needs. It stops them from enjoying the many benefits that employment can bring, based on an issue that could be easily resolved by increasing accessibility to a system on which vulnerable people rely to survive.
While it is a true cliché, knowledge is power. The creation of accessible knowledge on income assistance seems like a pretty easy way to begin a path towards economic empowerment for folks in the DTES.
LEDlab and Potluck Cafe will be releasing Kim’s report on income assistance, a white paper intended for education and advocacy, and a resource guide for employers hiring individuals on assistance in Spring 2017.
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