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Legal experts say welfare moms have rights case

The Georgia Straight
Shannon Rupp

Debbie Krull knows exactly what poverty looks like: a pot of pasta infested with maggots writhing in the boiling water. "This is so gross; is it okay to say this?" asks the 31-year-old mother of two as she brushes a long strand of brown hair out of her eyes and back into her dishevelled ponytail. "When I looked at the dried pasta, I found the larvae were right in it-it was past due."

"It's not the food bank's fault," Krull adds quickly. "They do the best they can. But grocery stores donate food that is past due that they can't sell."

Krull's stories about living in poverty make her sound like some prehistoric gatherer: she would walk for miles with a two-year-old on her back, trying to find their next meal.

"You're always thinking about your next food source. You might get breakfast at the school-they also have a parents' room. Then you go to the women's centre for lunch. Then you walk another 12 blocks to an agency where you can get diapers," Krull says, describing an average day. "You find out which food banks are open which days, and you go there. But with all the cutbacks, there are too many people and they often run out of food. I remember standing in the rain in a food-bank lineup for more than two hours with my three-year-old daughter, and all they had left was a handful of onions and potatoes and a bag of candy."

Although only Scrooge could listen to Krull's story without compassion, a report released Thursday (April 28) says that the plight of welfare moms is more than just a sad story.

"It's not just morally wrong, it's illegal," says Margot Young, an associate professor at UBC's law school who has coauthored a report (with human-rights activist Shelagh Day and lawyers Gwen Brodsky and Melina Buckley) on the legal reasons social-assistance cutbacks are illegal under human-rights laws. The report, Human Rights Denied: Single Mothers on Social Assistance in British Columbia, can be found at www.povertyand humanrights.org/docs/denied.pdf/.

Legally, Young explains, because social assistance has been deemed a public service it falls under the jurisdiction of the B.C. Human Rights Code, federal human-rights statutes, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and a host of other international human-rights treaties that Canada has signed.

Contrary to popular opinion, social assistance isn't something that is granted at the whim of governments. Legally, that would be unfair, Young explains, because politicians chase votes and the poor are the least likely to provide them.

"That is precisely what the charter and human-rights laws are about: they tell us that the majority cannot trample on minority rights," Young explains. "[Governments] have a legal obligation to look after the vulnerable people in our society. And they certainly can't pass legislation that has a negative impact specifically on single mothers." And that, the authors argue, is what the Liberal government has done with its 2002 B.C. Employment and Assistance Act. The name signals the government's intention that the revamped welfare program would encourage people back into the workforce. But as Young points out, under human-rights legislation the intention of the government's social-assistance changes is irrelevant if the effect of the legislation is discriminatory.

She also argues that some of the changes lack common sense, such as cutting the earning exemptions. Before 2002, single parents could keep up to $200 of earned income and another $100 in maintenance payments without having the money deducted from their social assistance.

As for expecting single parents on assistance-88 percent of whom are mothers-to return to work once their children are three, Young says that in the absence of affordable daycare, that is impossible. Nevertheless, those who aren't able to earn enough money to cover the average $1,000 monthly per child the report estimates that daycare costs, or find a cheaper alternative, are penalized by losing another $100. Other cuts include clothing allowances for job hunters and bus passes.

"How can they say that this is about getting people back to work?" Young argues. "If they were serious about people making the transition to the workforce, why wouldn't they maintain the earning exemptions? It would help maintain their connection with the workforce."

Despite the pre-election delivery of the report, Young says that she and her colleagues are nonpartisan, and she's quick to point out that previous governments also neglected vulnerable groups. "It is certainly the case that the NDP did some regressive stuff with social assistance, but the changes that were brought in by the Liberal government pushed beyond that-there was a qualitative difference."

 

Alison Brewin, program director of the West Coast Women's Legal Education and Action Fund, agrees that the 2002 changes were the most damaging to single mothers; they have been tracking the results of the cuts through their Single Mother's Human Rights Project. LEAF (www .westcoastleaf.org/) is a nonprofit society that advocates legal reform for women's equality. Although the organization rarely initiates a legal case, it is surveying single mothers and tracking the impact of the cuts in anticipation of possibly making a human-rights complaint. Brewin says that getting these women to talk publicly about their experiences has proved harder than they expected.

"For example, we've talked to some mothers who have been forced into the sex trade to survive, and they're terrified that if [the government] finds that out they'll lose their children," Brewin says. "We've been trying to encourage women to come forward, but they're scared."

Brewin also points out that single mothers are also more vulnerable due to cuts in health and education. Judging by Losing Ground: The Effects of Government Cutbacks on Women in British Columbia, 2001-2005, a March research report by UBC professors Gillian Creese and Veronica Strong-Boag, the widely reported "mystery" of why Premier Gordon Campbell doesn't appeal to women voters may have been solved.

Among the findings: since 2001, more than 20,000 public-sector jobs, 71 percent of which employed women, have been cut. Changes to the Legal Services Act led to funding cuts for family law and poverty law and left women representing themselves in court while many of their husbands could afford lawyers. The Ministry of Women's Equality, with a mandate to advance equality, has been replaced by the junior Minister of State for Women's and Seniors' Services.

Brewin says she just can't believe any government would deliberately set out to discriminate against women, and she doubts that this is what most British Columbians want.

"I think it stems from the belief that gender equity has been achieved and so people are moving away from addressing gender issues specifically," she says. "And I think the changes to social assistance had to do with an economic theory that making welfare unlivable is an incentive to get off it. But most people agree that they would like to see an end to child poverty. What they don't understand is that to get at child poverty, you have to help their parents."

Brewin adds that the cuts also play to the myths about single mothers. Some people believe the stereotype that single mothers are teenagers who have too many children at a young age, and that their problems are the result of poor choices or that they're simply "welfare bums". The facts are that the majority of single mothers have one or two children and most need help due to marriage breakdown.

In many ways, Debbie Krull is typical of the average welfare mom. She was a 25-year-old assistant restaurant manager when she got pregnant, intentionally. After her child was born, her partner became abusive. She went to live with her family out of town, briefly, then returned to a job in Vancouver. But conflicts around child custody led her to lose her job and restricted her from leaving the Lower Mainland. She applied for social assistance.

Due to a second (accidental) pregnancy, Krull now also has an 18-month-old son. Her pale face crumples as she says that she considered an abortion.

"I kept thinking: 'I can't bring him into this poverty,'" she says, wiping away tears. "I made three doctor's appointments, but I couldn't do it."

With another mouth to feed, Krull became more resourceful at finding food. She discovered that nonprofit societies, many of which lobby on behalf of the poor, served food at their meetings.

"I could get good food for my kids: fresh sandwiches, juice, milk-I started looking for more organizations," Krull recalls. Then she started speaking at the meetings and lobbying.

Her food-gathering smarts led to Krull being one of those rare single mothers who has found work. Ironically, it appears to be due to the cuts, although her job is probably not quite what the government's economic strategists had in mind. When she fell in with the food-serving activists, Krull picked up a few skills, and for the past seven months she has been working as a parent-aid organizer in a pilot program at the Aboriginal Mother's Centre. She got the job specifically because of her experience as a volunteer activist. 

But her story is one of the few hopeful tales. As Human Rights Denied also notes, the United Nation's treaty bodies have repeatedly expressed concern about Canada's high rates of poverty, particularly in regard to women in general and single mothers in particular. 

"If B.C. wants to be known internationally as a human-rights pariah, then they should just keep doing what they're doing," Margot Young says. 

As for whether or not it will actually come down to welfare moms laying a human-rights complaint against the government, Young and Brewin hope that won't be necessary.

"We just want the public and the politicians to know that this is what the laws say, and we would hope that the government-whichever one is elected-would take guidance from them," Young says.

28 Apr 2005