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The Advocate: Demythologizing Poverty
by W. Robert Arnold

(As printed in "Victoria Street Newz", August 08, 2008 - Volume 5, #5)

The next myth that I would like to debunk is the one about everyone on welfare being a fraud. Apparently, if one listens to the mythology, nearly everyone on welfare defrauds the government of millions of dollars per year. Every time someone is found guilty of welfare fraud it is reported in the media in the same way that another robbery by John Dillinger would've been handled in the old days.

The reality of the situation is that in 2007, the last year for which I was able to obtain statistics from the Ministry of Housing and Social Development, there were just 55 convictions for welfare fraud, the value of which was a little over $1 million.

If you won $1 million in the lottery and had to split it with 54 other people you wouldn't think that it was a great amount. It is not even $20,000.

In the same year there was an average of 140,000 people on income assistance. This means that less than 1% of the people on welfare were convicted of fraud in that year. In fact, there were less than 1% of the people on welfare even charged with fraud that year.

The biggest welfare frauds are not actually income assistance recipients. Landlords, for instance, in the downtown Eastside of Vancouver were renting single rooms to up to four people and charging them all the $325 rent allowed by the Ministry, thereby defrauding the Ministry of at least $1000 per room per month. This was reported in the Vancouver Sun on March 23 of this year.

There have been cases where workers for the Ministry set up dummy accounts and defrauded the Ministry of a lot of money before being caught. These cases of course are not widely reported in the media.

Because people are given so little money to exist on by the Ministry I am sure some of them do not declare little bits of money or goods that come into their possession from time to time. This is what I call a survival technique; not welfare fraud.

I have often wondered why, when someone is found to be defrauding the federal government by cutting corners on their income tax it is called cheating, yet when someone cheats on their reporting to the Ministry and gets away with $100 and is discovered it is called fraud. Calling it fraud makes it seem more serious and more criminal than cheating. This is another form of poor bashing and scapegoating that takes place in our society.

The Ministry is letting people know more clearly what they must declare and what the penalties should they be caught not declaring income will be; and this has apparently decreased the incidence of cheating on welfare. The Ministry is to be congratulated on this effort. People need to know clearly what is expected of them.

The next time you hear someone talking about welfare fraud as though it is a big thing, give them this article; or at least the facts in it. Tell them also that a single person on welfare has to live on $610 a month. I suspect that many working people, who have not had to resort to welfare, do not know this.

When we have a Universal Guaranteed Adequate Income, we will no longer have to spend big money to find and prosecute people who cheat from time to time on welfare. My guess is that it actually costs more to investigate and prosecute people who cheat from time to time on their welfare than they realize from their crime.

Now if the Ministry could raise the rates to the point where people didn't have to cheat, I would really be cheering for them.

(Robert is a 65 year old man who has fought poverty, his own and others, for over 45 years. He is President of the National Anti Poverty Organization, where he helps the voices of poor people be heard in the halls of power.)