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Could you eat for $3.60 a day?

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'There has to be a better way of doing this,' says Marianne Cerilli from the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg.

MIKE APORIUS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS ARCHIVES Enlarge Image

'There has to be a better way of doing this,' says Marianne Cerilli from the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg. Photo Store

If you're on welfare, you only get money for a phone if you might need to call 911 or a suicide crisis line.

If you aren't looking for work, there's no extra cash for a bus pass -- even if you're disabled.

Welfare rules stipulate people only get $3.60 a day for food, which buys one can of Campbell's Chunky soup.

Employment and income assistance in Manitoba is a secretive and confusing program based on living costs from two decades ago and mired in red tape, say experts who work with the poor.

"It's extremely complicated for people to navigate," said Grace Weinfortner, a community advocate with the Canadian Mental Health Association. "It's extremely difficult to make a life."

But dozens of non-profit groups that work with poor seniors, aboriginals and the disabled, all members of the EIA Advocates Network, are hoping a provincial review will finally reform Manitoba's welfare system. The review was to be released next week, but Friday's cabinet shuffle might delay that. There have been three different welfare ministers in the last four years.

The review was sparked three years ago by a Manitoba ombudsman's report, which recommended, among the things, that rates be reviewed periodically and the process be much more transparent. The ombudsman also asked the province to find out how many people dip into their food money to make rent.

That speaks to the chief demand of the EIA Advocates Network -- an increase to the basic housing rate to tie it to actual rents in Manitoba. Now, the basic amount for rent is roughly $285 -- about half the cost of a bachelor apartment in Winnipeg.

The province has consistently refused to raise welfare's basic living amounts, which have been largely unchanged for more than 20 years. Instead, the province has tinkered around the edges, creating a batch of new programs with upbeat names such as RentAid and Get Started! rather than increasing the basic monthly amounts.

"Certainly the right approach is not to simply, as this government is doing, accept the preponderance of red tape and complexity and then look to add staff to guide people through it," Progressive Conservative Leader Brian Pallister said. Roughly 40 per cent of people on welfare are disabled, half of them due to chronic mental illness. Another 40 per cent are single parents.

The province says it is trying to tailor programs to the individual needs of welfare recipients, with a push to get people educated and ready for jobs. So far, the Rewarding Work program has helped 10,000 people get off welfare.

And the RentAid program, which offers some a housing top-up, has helped more than 13,000 people have a little extra for rent.

But Weinfortner says the system is still arcane and counterproductive. Some clients with chronic mental-health issues have trouble maintaining their disability top-ups because the province often won't accept documentation from a family doctor, only an impossible-to-find psychiatrist. And no money for a bus pass or a phone means welfare recipients have no social life, especially in winter, which leaves them isolated and makes it harder to tackle depression or other mental-health issues.

"There has to be a better way of doing this," said Marianne Cerilli from the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg. "Rather than policing people to comply with all these rules, give people enough money so that they have a shot at some kind of quality of life."

maryagnes.welch@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 19, 2013 A15

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Updated on Saturday, October 19, 2013 at 2:02 PM CDT: added photo

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