Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Social Spending in Canada

One person's opinion

Canada is an enormously wealthy country. There are many problems this country faces but poverty in a country with the wealth that we have should not be one of them.

Let me start off by saying that I am receiving social benefits from the government. In my case, I live in Ontario and the welfare program is called Ontario Works (OW). There is a sister program in Ontario called the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP). This program is designed for people who have long-term disabilities that inhibit them from gaining and keeping a productive position in the workforce. In both cases, payments to individuals are made in two parts. One part is for Shelter and the other is for Basic Necessities. I am somewhat familiar with ODSP but I am obviously much more familiar with OW so references made to amounts will reflect that program. In the case of ODSP, since there is less obligation to attempt to find gainful employment, their amounts are slightly higher but are still much below any poverty line that I am aware of in North America.

In my case, I receive a maximum of $372 for housing. If actual rent is below that amount, your allotment will match your actual rent. Basic necessities come in at $227. In addition to those amounts, there is a provision for dental care, the cheapest eyeglasses available and prescription drugs if they are required. Anybody who has had any exposure to actual costs in this province will realize that the amounts are not only insufficient to consider staying on the program voluntarily, they are designed to drive you out of the program as fast as you can get out. This is definitely the intention of the program and it may be argued that it should succeed in spades. In fact, what it does is drive those that reach that nadir in life to do whatever they can to attempt to stay housed and fed rather than dedicating their time to finding employment.

Anybody who has paid rent will immediately realize that $372 is insufficient to put a roof over your head as a single person. That means that you are forced to dip into the $227 for basic necessities to bring your capital for housing to a point that you can afford a room. The alternative is to find a room-mate and hope that you can keep the rent below $744. That is a feat as well. You then have a room-mate who you likely do not know very well. Obviously, this can lead to all sorts of other issues as anyone with a functional brain can imagine. Assuming that one is successful in finding a compatible room-mate and you are actually able to keep the cost under $744, the system penalizes you for your success.

One of the mandates of receiving OW is that you actively seek employment. I believe that is a fair request. On the other hand, the system ensures that within a month or two you feel so downtrodden that it becomes increasingly difficult to actually get out and do that. The basic necessities amount is simply a joke, pure and simple. Nobody can afford to buy food, maintain any sort of wardrobe, have a phone and pay for electricity on that amount.

When you are reduced to applying for OW, your first priority immediately becomes finding a roof because if you do not have that, it is next to impossible to get any amount from the program. Once you do have a roof, your next concern is feeding yourself. Because the amount that is allotted for necessities is nowhere near sufficient to cover necessities, practically everyone on OW is reduced to utilizing food banks and free meal programs. Why the governments feel that they should rely on the goodwill of the community to provide food for those that are down on their luck is slightly beyond me. If they are going to rely on those agencies, then they should also be providing funds to help support them. As it is now, one can only go to an individual food bank one time per month. You do not get a sufficient amount nor enough diversity of foodstuffs from one food bank to last that month. You are thus forced to find and use more than one food bank and usually it runs to three or four in order to make it through the month. In addition to that, free meal programs are run by some social agencies so that you can get a hot meal at certain locations during specific times. When you add all of this together, much of your time is not spent actively seeking employment, it is spent scavenging for food.

It is unimaginable that someone who is in the OW program could exist without food banks. They serve a very valuable service for those caught in poverty, not only OW recipients but also those who are afflicted with having a job that does not pay enough to meet minimum needs. The problem with food banks is that they are reliant on donations. Much as they attempt to provide basic needs, they are not able to provide fresh fruit and vegetables. In fact, they provide a great deal of canned products and pastas. Basic nutrition is very difficult to achieve unless you supplement what is available at a food bank with the minimum meat products and fresh fruit and vegetables. The price of those commodities can be prohibitive given what your basic necessities will allow. The end result of not having enough money to buy what is necessary for a nutritious diet is that those on support tend to be ill more and have less energy to seek employment or do anything else for that matter. In addition, because of the food that they do consume, there is a tendency toward obesity and they are more susceptible to illness than the general population.

I would like to address the aspect of seeking employment. Anyone who has any experience in the employment market will tell you that most jobs are acquired through whatever network of people that you have in your life. The last statistic that I read claimed that something like 80% of jobs are never advertised anywhere; they go to people who have connections within the company. While newspapers do still carry advertising, most jobs that are advertised can be found online. There are even websites that aggregate all jobs from multiple newspapers and present them all on one site.

If you are not one of those fortunate to have a large network of people or have lost much of your network because you are unemployed, the Internet is the next best source for finding available jobs. In addition to searching for jobs online, many companies want you to apply online only. In order to find a job and apply online, it is obvious that you must have access to a computer and the Internet. There are places that have computers and free Internet. Libraries and a few agencies offer such services. They are very restrictive in terms of when you can use them and for how long you can use them. There certainly isn't enough money in $277 per month to consider paying $40 plus per month for minimum Internet service at home. That makes is a necessity that you live within walking distance of a library if you want to be effective seeking employment. You certainly can't be spending $2.55 for a bus every time you go looking for work. If you can find $80 or whatever the monthly fee is in your area, you could get a monthly pass but there really doesn't seem to be any rationale in spending almost half your basic necessity money for transportation.

Other than your name, the most important component of a resumè for the employer is your phone number. Of course, that necessitates having one. Links is a service in Hamilton that allows you to have a phone number for message taking only. You have to dial in from another phone to pick up any messages that are left. OW will provide funding for Links service but you are not able to talk with the potential employer when they call. That leaves you at the mercy of telephone tag or luck; neither very auspicious for landing a position. It also leaves the problem of how do you pick up your messages? Are you going to use a friend's phone every day for that? So, now you have to find the $30 per month for a phone. Where you are going to find the activation fee to initially receive the service is beyond me.

In summary, OW expects you to actively seek employment but ignores the hurdles that stand in the way of being effective in that task. It is a credit to those individuals who are able to overcome the hurdles but it is a guarantee that those who do not find employment quickly devolve in a direct correlation with the length of time that they are involved with the program.

Unemployment does many things to an individual who has been working for most of their adult life. For most people, their employment tends to be an identifier of who they are in society. Friendships tend to form along the lines of the socioeconomic strata in which your job puts you. When your economic conditions change, you are either unable to do the things that you used to do with friends or you are free to cultivate more expensive tastes if you are moving up the ladder. If you go from a responsible position to OW recipient, you not only lose a great deal of self-respect, you also lose most of your friends. The psychological impact of that can be devastating for some. At the very least, it is very hard on one's ego and makes it very difficult to climb out of the pit of poverty. While there are programs offered by OW to help come through such trauma, the support of being able to exist in a 'normal' society is completely lost so the potential positive affect of any counselling that is offered is lost as well.

Like most other western nations, wealth in Canada is increasingly in the hands of fewer every year. The taxation system may not be what it should be for the federal government to be able to take the initial plunge and invest in a minimum guaranteed income for all of its citizens but that is likely what is needed.  There are many problems within the economy but that does not take away from the fact that the social support systems for individuals in need rate closer to sub-Saharan levels than progressive nations such as the Scandinavian countries. I am aware that there are more studies going on but they have been going on for the last 40 years. It is time to take action and pay attention to what even the UN is telling us. We have to bring the poorest members of society back into a functional aspect of our society. It is foolish to spend money to ensure that citizens are alive but keep them entrenched in poverty. Rather than do more studies, some of the conclusions that were reached in the '80s and '90s should be acted on and bring rates to the point that people can shop for their food rather than scavenge for it. In addition, the hidden costs of poverty are rampant in terms of medical care, lost taxes due to unemployment and more crime. I could point to studies on each of these subjects but even without studies, the fallout from poverty is obvious and none of it is good.

Leadership is sadly lacking at every level of government. A complete lack of understanding of poverty and the resultant repercussions is something that seems to be shared by most individuals who are not caught in the poverty pit. I don't know if there will ever be a groundswell of support from the populace so it would seem to be in the hands of politicians to actually show some leadership and do something positive for a change.

It seems that right now, politicians are playing the game that the populace seem to want to hear. The rhetoric on that goes something like this ...
Poverty is a drain on society and the smart thing to do is to ignore those who are caught in the spiral. Give them less and less and maybe they will go away.
 So far, that doesn't seem to be working very well.  More people every year falling into poverty. Our federal government is more concerned with funding big oil than promoting measures that will help alleviate poverty. The Ontario government is more concerned with bringing their budget into line by downloading much of their responsibilities onto the municipalities. I am not certain where individual communities are going to find their required funding to maintain the pathetic programs that are in existence. I do not believe it is the municipalities' fault that the programs are as bad as they are since they have not been properly funded for many years ... perhaps ever. The only real solution to poverty is to establish a minimum income for every individual in Canada that will permit them to function as fully active members of society. The word 'welfare' could be eliminated from our vocabulary and the programs could then perhaps become more focused on helping those who are unemployed become employed and prouder of their place in society.

1 comment:

  1. Hi John, Very good article, you are right on about how be unemployed effects somebody who has worked all their life and can't find a job. I was told by OW it is so low because it is only suppose to be temporary until employment is found or ODSP comes through if you are disabled. Maybe your solution is to be an alcoholic or drug addict then you would qualify for ODSP which at least pays around $1,000.00 a month and then you might not have to spend so much time going to the food banks and maybe even be able to afford a land line. Good luck in your job search, you would be an asset to any company with your extensive computer experience and knowledge. Susan