Rebecca Bodo

Rebecca Bodo

Call to end government clawbacks

Single mother Rebecca Bodo isn't allowed to keep the $400 her ex husband sends from Alberta every month.

Rebecca Bodo doesn’t have a cellphone. You have to reach her on a land line, or email, or by mail.

The single mother of five-year-old Sophey foregoes the convenience of a cellphone to spare herself the bill so she can stretch the $1,242 she gets in monthly disability income assistance for food, clothing and car expenses.

But if she was allowed to keep the $400 her ex husband sends from Alberta every month, her and her daughter’s life would be easier.

That would help her to cut back slightly on the severe scrimping and saving, the weekly visits to the food bank, not being able to afford photos. Maybe she could save enough money to go back to school or sock away $100 in an RESP for Sophey.

“I’d like to teach her how to swim,” says Bodo.

But even at the discounted recreational rates offered to low income families, it’s too expensive.

“Twenty-seven dollars a month is a lot of money.”

Bodo’s story is featured in the 2014 Child Poverty Report, released this week and which calls for the B.C. government to put a poverty reduction plan into place.

The organization also wants a $15 hourly minimum wage, universal prescription, eye care and dental coverage, and most important for Bodo, and end to the clawback of family or child support payments to those on income or disability assistance.

Bodo explained during a mid-morning break this week, after dropping off her child at school, that she receives the $400 from her ex, but then when she receives her disability cheque, it’s reduced by that amount.

“This policy is evil,” said Bodo. “It was enacted by a premier who came from a single-parent family himself,” she said, referring to Gordon Campbell.

An extra $400 a month would mean money for a birthday party or Christmas or fewer compulsory visits to the food bank.

Last year, when it came to pay the $45 for school photos, she had to stretch out the payment.

“I couldn’t pay that on time.”

Her daughter had to wear her boots to school for a while because she couldn’t afford the Velcro shoes required by the school.

Bodo receives disability because of post-traumatic stress condition that leaves her unable to keep steady work.

She drives weekly to the Pitt Meadows branch of the Friends in Need Food Bank (to spare the lineups at the Maple Ridge location) to pick up whatever the bank has in the way of extra bread, vegetables or any other extras. That varies weekly, though, and recipients can only receive whatever happens to be donated that week.

“What people and grocery stores have donated is what I’m dependent on.”

Those weekly donations complement the complete hamper she receives monthly, which consists of a full grocery bag with all the essentials.

That’s worth about $70 and lasts for about a week.

Once the hamper is gone, Bodo stretches out the rest of the $1,242 disability income – after paying the $510 rent for a subsidized apartment and $225 for car insurance.

Her disability makes it difficult for her to take the bus, so she has to drive.

One strategy is to have a Costco membership, so she can buy food staples in bulk, such as meat or coffee, and avoid the nickel and diming of buying in smaller quantities.

And because she can’t work, she can’t benefit from the $800 in earnings that working parents are allowed to keep in addition to disability payments.

To save on the price of gasoline, once a week she’ll fill up in Mission, where fuel is 10 cents a litre cheaper.

During the summer, when the Haney Farmers Market opens, she’ll use the $15 weekly allowance for farmer’s market purchases.

She has considered returning to work, but the loss of child tax credits and income support makes it a difficult choice.

NDP MLA Michelle Mungall has been lobbying for the government to end the clawbacks on support payments and raised the issue last spring during a visit to the Friends in Need Food Bank.

“This policy needs to come to an end. They could do it tomorrow if they wanted,” she said.

“It means food on the table for these families … school supplies, a winter jacket.”

The Community Legal Assistance Society, along with three single mothers, launched a challenge of the government’s policy last month.

If the government no longer deducted child or spousal support payments from income assistance it would mean a loss of $18 million a year to government finances.

“It’s not their money. It’s really not the government’s money to be taking away,” Mungall said.

She hopes the Liberals make changes. Social Development and Social Innovation Minister Don McRae is meeting groups next month, after previously cancelling meetings to discuss the issue.

Mungall said the idea has support among both Liberals and NDP. This year, Maple Ridge council put a resolution to the Union of B.C. Municipalities asking that parents be allowed to keep $300 in support payments with amounts over that clawed back.

“I find it really interesting and really complementary to Maple Ridge that their community, regardless of political stripes, gets this.”

This spring Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows MLA Doug Bing also tried to raise the issue during the B.C. Liberal convention, but it wasn’t voted on.

Viveca Ellis, with the Single Mothers Alliance of B.C., says the policy is harshly administered. If a parent is behind in child support payments and pays up in one lump sum, the entire amount can be deducted from an income assistance cheque, which could mean the parent would have no income that month.

“They [custodial parents] don’t know when the money’s being collected sometimes.”

That can lead to an income assistance cheque of a few dollars.

“Then what happens is they get evicted or they can’t afford to feed their kids,” she said.

“Could you be any crueller? We’re talking about children.”

Even the clawback of alimony payments bothers those who pay, mainly fathers, because they feel the money is not helping their children.

“This drives the other parents bananas because they’re working hard and they want to these funds to their children.”