Imagine you have a roommate who’s also a friend and sometimes picks up your child from school as a favour to you. Would you expect your roommate to provide for you financially just because they sometimes help out with your child? Of course not. Yet that’s the BC government’s expectation when it comes to determining eligibility for income assistance and disability benefits.

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 dependent.

The current law’s broad interpretation of both of these terms forces people with limited economic resources to depend on others for their basic survival needs, even when no actual support is available to meet those needs. The assumption of financial dependency is based on archaic notions of family. It is an assumption that disproportionately harms women with disabilities and those living in poverty by eroding their free choice in relationships, putting them at an increased risk of violence and undermining their ability to flee an abuser.

West Coast LEAF is calling for amendments to BC’s Employment and Assistance Act and Employment and Assistance for Persons with Disabilities Act. These reforms would protect the rights of women to form supportive personal relationships without worrying that they will be cut off from assistance as a result. Relationships where there is no significant financial dependence or clear obligations to provide financial support should never count against a woman who needs access to benefits.

In the current legislation, a woman can be denied benefits or have the amount of her benefits reduced for many unfair reasons:

  • A married couple has separated and each assumed responsibility for their own finances, but they continue to live in the same residence because they cannot afford two homes, a common occurrence for people living in poverty. Although family law allows for couples to legally separate while still residing together, BC’s social assistance legislation provides no such option, instead expecting separated couples to continue to support each other financially.
  • A woman has been living with a dating partner for three months or more and they have shown even the most minimal interdependence, like applying jointly for an apartment. Assuming that such a couple will financially support each other is totally out of line with BC’s Family Law Act (and at least 14 other laws in BC), which generally require two years of cohabitation for a partner to be considered a spouse.
  • A woman lives with someone who has provided even minimal levels of support in caring for her child or children. In one case, a woman was denied benefits because she was deemed to have a dependency relationship with a person who occasionally purchased diapers and formula for her baby, even though the two adults maintained separate finances and did not support each other financially.

Our research shows that women are more likely than men to be denied benefits as a result of the legal definitions of spouse and dependent. This is not only unjust but also dangerous, as women forced into financial dependency have less freedom to leave abuse or to pursue a healthy and supportive new relationship that may actually help them to break the cycle of poverty.

West Coast LEAF believes that all women should have the right to self-determination about when and how they structure their personal relationships, and we urge the BC government to end the double standard that strips away this fundamental freedom from women living in poverty.