B.C. study finds staggering welfare payments could curb drug use while exposing other dangers

A man sits on a sidewalk along East Hastings Street in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, Thursday, Feb 7, 2019. A new study from the B.C. Centre for Substance Use found staggering income assistance payments could help curb high drug use on so-called "Welfare Wednesdays," but could also lead to other dangers. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

Researchers in British Columbia say changing when and how income assistance payments are provided may help reduce higher drug use when the cheques are received, but it could also increase other risks.

A team with the B.C. Centre on Substance Use (BCCSU) examined whether varying the timing and frequency of income assistance payments can reduce drug-related harms linked to the current once-monthly payment schedule that provides assistance on Wednesdays.

Preliminary data presented at Congress 2019, a humanities and social sciences conference in Vancouver, shows changes to the schedule can have benefits, especially in reducing the likelihood of drug-dependent participants to increase substance use on what is known as cheque day.

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Private member’s bill aims to stagger ‘Welfare Wednesday’

The study followed 194 people for six months between 2015 and 2018, giving some a monthly payment on the usual Wednesday date, while a second group collected monthly cheques on a different day and week, and a third group received semi-monthly payments.

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Researchers found participants in the second and third groups, who were not paid on cheque day, were about 33 per cent less likely to increase their drug use on regular government payment days, while also cutting overall frequency of drug use and the amount of substance that was used.

However, some participants, particularly those receiving smaller cheques twice a month, reported other difficulties, such as increased violence, negative encounters with police or an inability to meet monthly payments to creditors.

Lindsey Richardson, the principal investigator of the study, says the data reveals a potential for the income assistance system to address the severe harm linked to monthly payments, as long as the timing and frequency of payments avoids a one-size-fits-all approach.

“Changes must accommodate the complexity of people’s lives by allowing for choice in preferred schedule, providing flexibility to change as life circumstances change, and focusing on the autonomy and dignity of recipients,” Richardson says in a news release.

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Victoria police chief calls for staggered welfare cheques

Sharon Buchanan, manager of Pigeon Park Savings, a partnership between a local credit union and social service provider, says staggered social assistance payments helped some participants hit savings goals and to more closely monitor their accounts.

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“However, it presented unique challenges to others who felt intimidated by creditors if they were not able to service their debts because of the new payment schedule,” she says.

“It’s clear there’s a need to balance the nuances of different schedules while meeting the need for an individualized approach.”

Cheque day has long been linked to considerable and costly increases in drug use, often resulting in overdose, hospital admission, and emergency service calls, the study says.

The B.C. Coroners Service has also reported fatal overdoses increase by up to 40 per cent in the five days after the monthly payments are received.

The authors say this is one of the first studies to examine the impact of potential changes to cheque day schedules.

B.C. Liberal MLA Jane Thornthwaite introduced a private members’ bill in April calling on the province to stagger the payments.

The NDP government said at that time it would wait for the BCCSU’s report before making any changes to the payment schedule.

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—With files from Global’s Richard Zussman

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