Welfare woes: trying to stem Victoria’s ‘cheque effect’

VicPD chief suggests staggered social assistance payments, others say solution not that simple

Jim is broke and itching for March 21 – the next “welfare Wednesday,” streetspeak for when monthly social assistance cheques arrive.

Jim’s money never lasts long; two days to dissolve $710, “going out, seeing friends, paying debts,” he says.

The “cheque effect” is a universal problem marked by the consequences that instant funds create for illicit drug users, the mentally ill and homeless. While welfare provides relief for many, including substance users, it’s a headache for emergency services.

“We’ve identified a trend. Around this time, call-outs for illicit drug behaviour and social order crimes spike,” says Victoria police Chief Const. Del Manak. “Officers know in advance it’s going to a very busy, demanding night.”

While he could not offer any official statistics linking an increase in crime to Welfare Wednesday, Manak says it’s evidenced in the stories of front line workers.

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The chief expressed his concerns in a Feb. 22 letter to Shelia Taylor, deputy minister of social development and poverty reduction.

“At the very least, I want to talk about the current process – why is income assistance received on one particular day? Are you aware that this causes problems for police and other responders?” he wrote, noting that additional officers are assigned to those busier periods.

Manak’s letter queried whether the ministry has considered other payment models, such as staggering the issue date of welfare cheques, a popular concept but one with few real-life examples.

Lindsey Richardson, an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia, is a principle investigator in a study on the “cheque effect.”

“There’s a long history of scientific evidence that document drug use and drug-related harm that coincides with income assistance payments,” she says. The influx of cash can interrupt addiction and HIV treatment, cause fatal and non-fatal overdoses and increase mental health apprehensions, to name a few effects.

“The staggered distribution method is not new and neither is the fact that pay signals an increase in consumption,” Richardson says. “Payday triggers social cues and we see this in all areas of society … By staggering and splitting payments, there could be a chance to reduce those cues that lead to harm.”

While no system is perfect, she adds, the goal is to find the most public-health promoting system available.

“When you’re talking about welfare, that’s a large group of people,” points out Grant McKenzie, communications director for Our Place, the street level agency that serves over 4,000 people in poverty every year. “A staggered cheque might not make any difference to some, but it is timed to take care of bills and rent.”

Compared with the pressure it puts on police, “welfare Wednesday” has an opposite effect on social services, McKenzie notes.

“As soon as welfare happens, it’s our quietest time. People can afford to rent a hotel room, go out for something to eat,” he says. Staff meetings are held during the lull period, giving them a few days to regroup before clients start to trickle back in.

“We do see an increase in overdoses in the five days after cheque day. But if we staggered it they wouldn’t go down, they’d just be spread across the month.”

The increased chance of victimization with a staggered system is the primary concern of McKenzie and others in the social service field. “If Johnny’s got a cheque and you’re broke, you go to his place. If Sheila’s got a cheque …,” he says, admitting that no clear solution has emerged. “There is always going to be predators that want to separate the vulnerable from their money. There is never going to be a system to completely stop that.”

Manak acknowledges the concerns, but says people are being victimized now.

”They get their cheque money and have it taken away,” he says. “All I’m asking is that the government consider a pilot project. I want to better understand their reasoning behind this system, and look at more alternatives.”

As for Jim, who sleeps rough on the Victoria streets, the timing of the payments matters not.

“Honestly, I don’t care what day it comes, just as long as it comes.”

anna.james@vicnews.com

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