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A leg up for the needy

Poverty advocates cheer long-overdue allowance boost

It was not a typical reaction to a provincial spending blueprint, but it was not a typical budgetary boost.

"This is the best budget we've seen in two decades," said Winnipeg Harvest boss David Northcott after Thursday's budget gave poverty and housing activists a significant win.

The budget boosts the welfare housing allowance by as much as $70 a month and sets out a four-year deadline for more increases that will ensure the allowance hits 75 per cent of average rents. That will allow many on welfare to afford something better than a rooming house and avoid dipping into their food money to make rent.

Critics have frequently said the province's welfare system is needlessly complicated, cluttered with a bevy of targeted programs with catchy names, such as RentAid and Manitoba Works. The province pledged to simplify that system somewhat Thursday by combining the basic shelter benefit, worth roughly $285 a month, with a special top-up available to some welfare clients but not all. And the new program, called Rent Assist, will be more generous, giving welfare clients and the working poor between $50 and $70 extra a month.

People on welfare will automatically get the maximum, and the program will be expanded to include more working poor.

"People at the drop-in will be thrilled with $70," said Lynda Trono of the West Broadway Community Ministry. "It's not winning the lottery, but it's something."

With the new top-up, the housing allowance for a single disabled person will be $435, just enough for a very modest bachelor suite and within the 75 per cent target.

Families and single parents have further to go. A single mother with two kids will get $480 under the new plan. A very cheap two-bedroom is still well outside their reach at $700 a month.

Instead of moving immediately to the 75 per cent target, community economic development expert Brendan Reimer said it appears the province chose to expand the rent allowance to include more working poor, which he said was a reasonable approach that helps people move from welfare to work.

About 15,000 welfare recipients living in private apartments got the old top-up, along with 3,000 people who were working at low-paying jobs.

Rent Assist will cost the province $20 million this year and likely much more over the next three budgets. Finance Minister Jennifer Howard would not speculate on the total cost Thursday.

Over the last two years, local poverty groups have campaigned for an increase to the housing allowance. Earlier this week, they staged a small protest at the Manitoba legislature. Their campaign earned some unlikely support in Progressive Conservative Leader Brian Pallister, who also pledged to meet the 75 per cent benchmark if he gets elected.

maryagnes.welch@freepress.mb.ca

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