Opinion

JUST CAUSE: Who are the real swindlers here?

The word “Bilk” means to defraud, cheat, or swindle.

It was used last week to describe the actions of a disabled woman on a disability pension who was accused of defrauding the Ministry of Social Development because she had collected her $906 monthly income to live on and at the same time had received other income she didn’t realize had to be reported.  Then it would be taken off dollar for dollar from her $906.

She told the court she didn’t mean to do anything wrong and did not understand the rules. She has had no previous run-ins with the law, for “bilking” or other crimes.

She is 61 and diagnosed with a severe mental illness that requires the support or supervision of another person in order to perform her daily living activities. Now she has a criminal record for theft over $5000 and has to pay the government back it’s $20,000 via a standing restitution order for the year and nine months she lived “high on the hog.”

Or did she?

The “bilking” works out to about $925 a month. Evidently she was expected to go off disability assistance and live off the income she was receiving. What we don’t know is how much that income was, or if it was really income (because often “income” under welfare rules is not income as the average person would see it).

Was it enough to survive on? Were they really funds that were permitted to be spent on her shelter and support costs? The rules do not take that into consideration.

Examples of income that is not allowed to be received the same time you get disability pension include child or spousal support,  loans including student loans, accessing more than about $5,200 a year from a disability trust to promote your independence, gifts in kind, income tax refunds and Canada Pension Plan income to name a few.

Welfare in B.C. has harsh rules that force welfare recipients into a day-to-day struggle for survival – trying to buy healthy food, find safe shelter, and the basics. Welfare rates push them into deep poverty and the rules keep them there.

Welfare since 2002 has been structurally dependent on charities and food banks in order for people to meet their basic needs.

So excuse the poor people for misreading the rules about their windfall because they are too busy buying fresh fruit and vegetables for once, or finally being able to move out of an abusive situation.

It has been reported that many of the recent court cases initiated by the provincial government against welfare recipients do not stand up to legal scrutiny.

The problem is that welfare recipients cannot get legal representation and the government capitalizes on that. They cannot comprehend or fully respond to legal proceedings on their own, particularly if they are mentally challenged or have literacy issues. This imbalance of power forces people to pay back money they might not even owe.

There is just cause to suggest the title for this article should have been “Government and Courts kick unrepresented disabled woman while she is down; gets blood from pulverized stone.”

The real crime here is the theft of dignity and opportunity from people whose poverty and disability have been criminalized. Jobs have been taken away, wages remain well below the poverty line, and welfare rules make it impossible to get ahead. Then, as a poor person, you have no access to justice because poverty law services have been taken away.

The highest child poverty rate in Canada exists here, where children, their parents, and their grandparents are hungry and sick.

This might  not be a crime but it is certainly an embarrassment when we take a 61-year-old disabled woman to court  and slam her with a criminal record when there was no  intent on her part to do anything wrong.

Furthermore, she now faces a lifetime ban for welfare income. So, while she has a severe disability, she will not be permitted to ever collect income assistance.

It seems to me that the real bilkers sit in power in Victoria.

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