Release: Advocates call for people on social assistance to have equal autonomy in their relationships

VANCOUVER – West Coast LEAF is calling on the BC government to amend the law to ensure that the people living in poverty have equal freedom to choose when they are financially dependent on another person. West Coast LEAF is recommending amendments to BC’s Employment and Assistance Act and Employment and Assistance for Persons with Disabilities Act that will allow recipients of social assistance to form supportive personal relationships without worrying that they will be cut off from assistance as a result.

The current definitions of both “dependent” and “spouse” in BC’s social assistance legislation are out of sync with other laws, creating a double standard for people living in poverty and an additional barrier to accessing benefits. Because eligibility for benefits is determined based on the financial situation of the entire family unit, a lot is at stake in deciding who counts as a spouse or as a dependent. The law’s current interpretation of “dependent” and “spouse” forces people with limited economic resources to depend on others for their basic survival needs.

“The current laws reflect an archaic idea of family. They assume that if you live with someone who provides you even the most minimal support, that person has an obligation to cover all your living costs,” says Kendra Milne, Director of Law Reform at West Coast LEAF. “In reality, someone you have a personal relationship with, and even your spouse, has no automatic obligation to financially support you. The current laws result in people being unfairly cut off from assistance when they have no other means of financial support.”

British Columbians who do not need to rely on social assistance can freely choose how they structure their personal relationships. Family law has long recognized that even spouses may maintain totally separate finances and financial independence. However, people on income and disability assistance do not have these same rights. The current social assistance laws allow the provincial government to make decisions about the personal lives of people living in poverty simply because they need benefits to survive.

“People should not lose control over their personal relationship just because they are living in poverty,” notes Milne. “It’s particularly important for women to be able to choose when and how they become financially dependent on another person. Women living in poverty and women with disabilities already face an increased risk of violence, and forcing them to be economically dependent on a short term boyfriend or another person they live with puts them at additional risk and makes it harder for them to leave an abuser.”

West Coast LEAF’s briefing note and recommendations have been sent to the Minister of Social Development and Social Innovation.