B.C. Premier Christy Clark is drawing lukewarm praise from anti-poverty groups and the Opposition New Democrats for increasing assistance to poor families and British Columbians receiving disability payments.

Clark said Monday her $5 million plan to supplement the incomes of vulnerable B.C. families and support the goals of disabled people looking for jobs is the first pillar in her Families First Agenda.

"We have a duty in this wealthy province to protect and care for B.C.'s most vulnerable citizens," said Clark at a news conference at the Neil Squire Society offices in Burnaby.

Clark will introduce welfare system changes later this year that provide extra money to needy families to get their children ready for school and she's allowing people who receive disability assistance to earn up to $800 per month without losing their benefits.

The program will give vulnerable families $100 for every child between five and 11 for school start-up costs and $175 for every child 12 and over, she said.

The assistance program would also include more and enhanced tax exemptions for families on welfare, a $200 monthly earnings exemption to welfare recipients eligible for work and improved access to dental care for children.

Reinstating previous benefits, NDP says

NDP social development critic Carole James said Clark's changes will help people, but she maintained that Clark is reinstating some benefits the Liberals dropped when first elected in 2001.

Clark increased the disabled exemption to $800 a month from $500 a month and reinstated the earnings exemption for welfare recipients, who are now entitled to earn $200 extra a month without penalty.

That leaves Saskatchewan now as the only province in Canada that does not include some form of earnings exemption for people on welfare.

James said Clark's move on the earnings exemption front is a "plus."

"It connects people to the workplace," she said. "We, certainly, in the Opposition have been calling for it for years."

James said she was disappointed the government didn't introduce a widespread poverty reduction strategy and was highly critical of Clark's plan to extend to five weeks from three weeks the work-search period for a potential welfare recipient.

James said people are usually financially desperate when they arrive at the welfare office, and to be told to look for a job for five weeks first doesn't make sense.

"It shows the premier doesn't understand how difficult it is for people at this time," she said. "I hate to think the premier is using this to score political points."

'Welcome news'

B.C. poverty reduction coalition spokeswoman Trish Garner said Clark's plan is welcome news, especially the return of earnings exemptions, but anti-poverty advocates were looking for an across-the-board increase in welfare rates.

"We're feeling pretty positive about the small changes they've made though, ultimately, of course, we would still like to see the end goal be raising the welfare rates to an adequate level," she said.

She said a recent study found that raising the welfare rates by $200 a month for single people, $300 per couple without children and $400 per family with children would cost about $383 million annually.

Currently, single people on welfare receive $610 a month, which is broken down to $375 for shelter and $235 for food.

Last January, NDP MLA Jagrup Brar tried to live on $610 for the month. He lost 26 pounds, ended up $7 in debt and was forced to sell his backpack to get enough money to take the SkyTrain back to his home in Surrey.

The Disability Without Poverty Network, a coalition of advocacy groups, also welcomed the government's changes, but said benefits the disabled receives should be raised to reflect the cost of living in the province.

"As other provinces across the country increase their disability benefit rates, B.C. is rapidly falling behind," said says Faith Bodnar, Executive Director of the BC Association for Community Living.

"People with disabilities are forced to choose between rent and food, the time for an increase in benefits is long overdue."