Explosion of 'disability' welfare crippling Vancouver's Downtown Eastside

Disability cases spike 247 per cent in 11 years

"The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern."

-Proverbs 29:7

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In Vancouver, we like our poor people contained. Away from our restaurants and mountain views, mainly in the Downtown Eastside. It's a welfare state in the literal sense.

According to the Ministry of Social Development, out of 16,590 neighbourhood residents, 7,841 (47 per cent) receive welfare cheques each month, not including folks on worker's compensation or unemployment insurance. The neighbourhood's reliance on welfare belies a province-wide decline in welfare cases. Since 1995, thanks to provincial reforms, the number of British Columbians on welfare has dropped every year from 367,387 to 180,921 in 2011. However, during that same 17-year span, welfare "disability" cases, folks deemed unemployable due to physical or mental maladies, increased every year from 22,167 to 94,986.

In the Downtown Eastside, the numbers loom larger. In 2000, only 1,720 neighbourhood residents received disability welfare compared to a whopping 4,255 in 2011. That's a 247 per cent increase in 11 years. Disability cases now comprise the majority of welfare recipients in the neighbourhood.

So what's the deal?

Like most issues in the Downtown Eastside, it depends on who you ask. Last week I talked to several neighbourhood residents who all receive some form of social assistance. Nobody spoke on record, fearing reprisal from provincial benefactors, but everyone agreed about disability welfare. If you're on it, you cherish it. If you're not, you aspire to it. Why? Because a single person on regular welfare receives $610 per month compared to $906 for singles on disability. A single parent with one child receives $946 on regular welfare compared to $1,242 for that same parent on disability. The maximum monthly amount for regular welfare ($1,221) falls far behind maximum disability welfare ($1,863). These maximum rates do include $35 bonuses for each additional dependent. And finally, disability welfare recipients aren't required to look for work and often receive monthly cheques for many years.

Of course, there are legitimate cases of disability in the neighbourhood, from arthritis to schizophrenia, and mental disorders born from tragic histories of abuse and addiction. But our increasingly self-obsessed culture, which assigns disease to every human condition, has lowered the bar. Mark Sieben, deputy minister of social development, defends the disability explosion, pointing to mood disorders and depression "which might affect somebody's ability to seek and remain in gainful employment." Additionally, welfare reforms, which place greater onus on back-to-work measures, have seemingly inspired welfare workers who make final decisions on disability cases. Speaking anonymously to me, another ministry bureaucrat made the following observation: "Let's be frank, the frontline workers are amazing people, and if they see somebody applying for income assistance who they really feel should be applying for disability, which is more money and more security, they really pull out the stops to help get that done."

No doubt that's true. The majority of welfare workers, like the majority of advocates in the Downtown Eastside, act in good faith. Welfare, they say, alleviates poverty. But can they accurately make that claim? According to the latest Metro Vancouver homeless count, despite a 2007 welfare rate hike, homelessness increased by 314 people between March 2005 and March 2011. In the Downtown Eastside, anecdotal evidence-supported by police, advocates and residents-suggests daily decline. Far from lifting folks out of poverty, welfare cheques often seal their fate, helping fund drug addictions and an ever-expanding social housing scheme, which feeds the drug market and fuels the poverty machine.

In their controversial 1994 book The Bell Curve, Harvard psychologist Richard Herrnstein and political scientist Charles Murray argue against perpetual welfare and a "high-tech and more lavish version of the Indian reservation" in urban areas. They also note the erosion of individual rights and freedoms of poor people "once it is accepted that a significant part of the population must be made permanent wards of the states."

Welfare is necessary, for the helpless. For everyone else, it should remain a temporary stop on the road to brighter days. Government-sanctioned "disability," when wrongly prescribed, epitomizes the soft bigotry of no expectations. It removes incentive, keeps poor people poor, dousing destinies with the stroke of a pen. Despite good intentions, there's nothing righteous about that.

mhasiuk@vancourier.com

Twitter: @MarkHasiuk

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