Saturday, May 24, 2008


Every once in awhile, the new Right through its various associations and accomplices chooses to attack government for the costs it generates. Their only solution it appears is to lower taxes, ease the burden on the upper classes to "encourage" investment. However, these same organizations are not present when it comes to how the government is going to cover the added costs of poverty that seems to almost always follow huge tax decreases for the well-heeled. The well-heeled just turn to a 'law and order' agenda and wonder why people are "going crazy" all of a sudden and how society is no longer safe. People even in small towns are interviewed and they tell the media how they used to keep their doors unlocked and can longer do so.

In my own community, while the rate of homicide and violent crimes seem to be decreasing, the rate for property-related and fraud-related crimes seems to be on the rise. We are constantly hearing about how debit machines are getting "rigged" to copy valuable information from people's magnetic strip on their cards and somehow high tech keypads pick up the P.I.N. numbers that are associated with the cards. The new fraudsters then go home to make copies of the unaware victims' debt cards and clean out their bank accounts. Home repair "contractors" go door to door to sign up unsuspecting customers who will give the "repair person" a down-payment who will then disappear with their money, never to return again to actually carry out the repairs. Telephone "fraudsters" will call and claim to represent a legitimate company or charity and ask for your credit card information to "upgrade" your existing cable, telephone or utility service that you currently subscribe to. Others with less cunning and less resources hang out on street corners to ask for spare change to take a bus or to buy a coffee. These incidents have risen geometrically over the past 20 years; however, our taxpayer federations continue to cry out how much we pay in taxes and how many people are "abusing" social services. They fail to see the connections I see with the rising rate of non-violent crimes involving property and fraud.

I talk to many of the business owners I know well in the downtown of my community. They feel bad about it, but they say if it were not for the drug dealers in the area, they'd probably be out of business. Legitimate consumers are decreasing in population, while those who are obtaining their profits through crime are increasing, it seems. We all complain that "somebody" needs to do something to "crack down" on fraud and so-called illegitimate claims for legitimate avenues, such as insurance cases, welfare benefits, worker's compensation, etc. At the same time, I am seeing a sharp increase in the number of legitimate claimants appearing at my office who have been unfairly robbed of their claims and are now losing their homes, businesses and families because of this. Where does this end? I know members of the general public have no clue what a legitimate claimant has to go through in order to claim what is legitimately theirs by law. Webpages, discussion groups and public forums are filled to the brim with people that think that "90% or more" of those claiming disability for example are perfectly able to work, but just don't want to. Others advocate that people with disabilities should be paid less because the writers are under the impression that disabled persons are less capable of contributing than a "regular person". Others complain of increased taxes going to "immigrants, welfare fraud and scammers", when in fact none of these people EVER personally experienced what they claim the "others" they speak of either experienced or claimed to be experiencing. The taxpayer's federations want more money to spend on foreign investments, foreign vacations and foreign products, because these particular individuals ALREADY have more than enough to spend on domestic products and services, so they just want to get greedy and get more.

A report called "Growing Gap" has been published by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, which shows that the top 10% of the income bracket (or those most likely to complain about so-called higher taxes) actually gained more than 16% in terms of real growth of net incomes over the past twenty years. Those in the so-called "middle classes", if there is such a thing anymore, have not gained much, except possibly a net gain of $53 per annum in real money (constant $2005 dollar) over the past twenty years. The lowest income brackets actually lost almost 20% of their real income over the past twenty years (and this is working low-income ... those forced to rely on government transfer programs are argued to have lost more than 30% over the past 20 years). This is not good enough apparently for those that want further taxes shaved off their annual tax bill ... they don't see any connection to how the suffering of the very poor can very well be connected to more taxes in the future for all of us (including the well-heeled that complain the loudest) and less property security.

All one has to do is sit in a bar or a doughnut shop or a drop-in centre to listen to what people are forced to do, the choices they are being forced to make -- one of course can always choose the honest path, but it turns out that if one does so, they will only fall further behind. If you want a clearer idea about how honesty destroys any chances of getting ahead, read "Why is it so tough to get ahead?" by John Stapleton and his associates at the Metcalf Foundation, which can be downloaded from here. People in subsidized housing are shot down the minute they declare earnings in excess of $100 a month; people on social assistance are shot down by 50% for any dollar they earn whatsoever; people whose annual income exceeds $20.000 a year even by a little bit, begin to lose access to subsidized housing and many other child-related benefits. Those that do not want to lose have to cheat to win, thus which is why we have laws to catch the so-called "scammers". Of course, Kimberly Rogers, of Sudbury, Ontario, who "cheated" welfare in order to get an education and get off the system eventually, was convicted of scamming welfare, because she was not permitted to collect welfare AND go to school. A whole inquest and dozens of recommendations later, nothing changed. Our taxpayers' coalitions and uneducated right continue to clamour on for more and deeper cuts, so they can afford two or even three SUVs and Florida vacations, while "other people" starve.

The reality of the matter is that we are ALL paying for poverty and allowing it to continue. The upper classes may not feel it as much, as most of their investments and concerns are not domestic. However, for everybody else, ranging from the barber, the baker and the candlestick-maker, they have all noticed the impact of increased and tolerated poverty in the past twenty years. Why?

The facts:

1. Poor people do not go to movies, rent videos, buy new clothing, buy jewellery, or eat out.

The more poor people there are, the less people there are in a community that is doing all of those things. This affects small business. Wealthy people who are now allowed to pay less taxes are not going to buy MORE domestic products, because they already have what they need. Why would a wealthy family, for example, go out and buy MORE groceries than they need just because they have more 'disposable' income? Those who are earning less, or getting less on their welfare incomes, are not spending as much, because the cost of their housing is crowding out any other income that would normally be used on groceries, clothing, transportation, eating out, etc.

2. Poor people have poorer health outcomes and are subject to higher health care costs.

One statistic that is particularly shocking is that poor people have four times as much chance of becoming diabetic than those of middle and upper income brackets, even when weight is factored in. Complications from diabetes, such as amputations, heart disease, blindness and high blood pressure are at least twice as likely in low-income diabetics than in diabetics from other social classes. This is even after access to medical plans and universal health care in Canada is accounted for. The poor are twice as likely to develop irreversible heart conditions as others. They are more than three times as likely to suffer from nosocomial (or hospital-based) infections than other people and are more likely to be put into nursing homes, where care is less than optimal. Some people have argued this is almost a deliberate strategy to save money, but most of these people do not die right away, but end up costing hundreds of thousands of more dollars to the system -- even the U.S.-based health care system -- than middle and upper class persons do.

3. Poor families are more likely to be a target of child protection services.

How many of you heard of a wealthy family having their children apprehended from them for reasons of supposed neglect? If this happens at all, it is rare. The wealthy have good lawyers and are also able to hide any neglect they might impose if they were prone to this. The statistics also show that 87% of families that have children's aid involved with them on an ongoing basis are low-income or working class families. The poor are more likely to have a child apprehended from them, usually on the basis of 'environmental conditions'. Perhaps, their teachers reported seeing them without a proper winter coat or regularly coming to school without lunches. Explored further, there are always skeletons that can be exposed in ANY family, but wealthy families do not attract this kind of attention. At a cost of $2,300 per month per child, we as taxpayers need to ask good questions about the accountability of the child protection system and whether or not it is being operated on the basis of social class and culture, as opposed to actual signs of abuse and neglect.

4. Poverty breeds crime.

Middle and upper income people believe that welfare is "prone" to abuse and that because of this, tighter controls need to be placed on recipients. Some even advocate food stamps and direct-pay for rental housing (which if studies of these policies were examined would learn that social class becomes caste-like and stratification between classes becomes impossible for most). What happens to people who have little in a society that seems to have plenty is that some of the poor will attempt to acquire what they feel they deserve through illegal or illicit means ,,, people turn to prostitution, drug dealing, small time theft rings, fraud, etc. to supplement their meagre incomes. Who are these people defrauding? You and me. You and I are the people that answer our phones to "charities" asking for our credit card numbers. You and I use "debit machines" where fraudsters are learning more and more sophisticated skills in skimming. You are I are working in the retail business that is becoming more and more subject to shoplifters and outright robberies. You and I are having to lock our doors, install security systems and take taxis home in order to protect ourselves from the 'seedy' side of our population.

While criminals may have a later motive for drug purchases and addiction, they almost always started with a motive of poverty. They have to pay their rent. They have to eat. They have to earn an income. They have to pay child support. Around them are commercials for fancy home renovations, brand new computerized cars, fancy cell phones, computers and other gadgets that "the rest" of society can afford without having to turn to crime. We think nothing of replacing our car every two or three years, replacing a computer every four years and buying new clothes to attend the latest gala function or wedding of a family or friend. People living in poverty cannot do these things. Some of them suffer because they do not want to risk committing a crime; others become less shy about knocking off the nearest variety store to get what they want ... or get engaged in the drug trade. In seedy neighbourhoods, the drug trade is open and available and for young kids that get nothing at home, the opportunity to drive a nice car, wear expensive jewellery and dress in fashionable clothing is too great. What are we doing as a society other than worsening the situation by sending out non-verbal signals that people of low-incomes are somehow less deserving of a modern life?

Mental health is a major loser as well in all this throw for show societal expectations among us. People who live in subsidized housing and CANNOT get ahead because of housing rules are bound to break them. People who cannot get ahead due to stringent treatment of earnings on welfare are bound to break them. Think about it. If you were forced to pay 80% of your income on taxes today, only to pay a bit more as your income goes up ... will you be less likely to claim your extra income? The rate of tax evasion and "cheating" on income taxes outnumbers the number of people who cheat on welfare by 10 to 1, not because welfare recipients are more honest, but because the dogs are on them all the time! Unfortunately, for many -- NOT claiming their income while on welfare or in subsidized housing is probably the only way they will break the cycle of poverty. This certainly needs to be looked at by the government folks assigned to look into poverty, but even doing this is not going to get poor people to spend more or make them healthier.

This is a very complex situation that needs more of an examination than the cursory one that is given today. Unfortunately, it is the food banks, the charities and the homeless shelters, as well as certain public services that benefit from the presence of the poor ... and these organizations need to be dealt with, not put in charge of any anti-poverty strategy. There are staffers of food banks and homeless shelters making $80,000 and above - why would they want to truly see poverty ended? Wouldn't there be a better incentive by government for example to fund people on the basis of poverty-reduction, as opposed to continuation of the same old - same old? I am not saying many of these people do not have a conscience or are not concerned, but their very livelihoods and thus, their financial interests are geared toward the rapid increase of poverty today!

Poverty is bad for business because poor people do not spend. Poverty is bad for business because poor people cost more in terms of health care, corrections, social services and related expenses. Businesses do not benefit from having to pay more taxes to cover the costs of these things. Poverty is bad for business because there will soon be less and less places to safely locate one's business without having to put up with panhandlers and drug dealers outside your front door. Because we ALL know inherently this is true, I am calling on ALL OF YOU to push the government into developing a serious -- and not superficial or politically smooth sounding plan -- to not only reduce, but to eliminate poverty altogether! It should be considered the scourge of a modern society to even accept the presence of poverty amidst our so-called wealth!

Your thoughts?

Sunday, May 4, 2008


More people today than ever hold university degrees and college diplomas than before in our educational history. It is said that at some point in the future, 70% of all jobs will require some type of post-secondary education. More than one in five Ontarians have at least one university degree, and approximately one third completed training at a community college level. Students graduating from post-secondary institutions are fraught with problems of student debt. Others have trouble finding work in their field.

At the same time, we hear about employers crying out about a so-called 'skills shortage'. We hear that hundreds of thousands of civil servants, professionals, tradespersons, etc. are all going to be retiring in the next ten years and somebody has to replace them! The facts look grim. People are having less children. That means there will be fewer workers to support those who end up retiring in the years to come. Skills development is a major issue with many employers in both the public and private sectors. However, how come many services continue to provide what is at best mediocre responses to these problems?

For some of this, I blame the situation on 'consumerism'. In the past twenty-five years, consumers of a variety of types of services, ranging from addictions, to social services, to mental health to employment supports, have wanted and deserved a greater say in how these services are shaped and delivered. In fact, during the 1990's the move went to the point of hiring unqualified consumers to actually provide many of these same services that we generally expect to received from trained individuals. Consumers who were unable to succeed academically have decried what they referred to as 'credentialism' and pushed for the emphasis on 'life experience' as an actual criteria upon which to make hiring decisions, as opposed to actual skills for the job. People who lived in poverty can best help others who live in poverty. People with mental health problems can best help others with mental health issues, and the list goes on.

When somebody with any type of credential accidentally slips through the hiring process, movement leaders soon try to find a way to get rid of them, on the grounds that somebody with a disability that actually has legitimate credentials couldn't really be disabled or really couldn't be truly disadvantaged. While it is true that a lower percentage of persons with disabilities, for example, have completed college and university than their non-disabled peers, but the numbers among persons with disabilities are not insignificant. So throughout the 1990's, consumers were hired in a broad range of jobs to provide support services to other consumers, counselling, advocating on their behalf and to set up consumer-run initiatives, like drop-in centres and such. However, most of these programs -- though funded -- were not successful in capturing true consumer representation at the political level, or developing programs that truly met the needs of the whole population of consumers they were to serve.

Please do not take this as an anti-consumer rant, as the concept of hiring consumers in various positions is a good one, but required skills, qualifications and expectations of these positions should not differ whatsoever from the requirements for positions open to non-consumers. In discussing this with various consumer leaders in Ontario, I have still not ascertained from any of them how "life experience" can be measured objectively in a way to contribute to one's candidacy for a paid position. What about your "life experience" itself makes you more qualified to be an accountant? What about "life experience" and how it applies to your capability in handling a multi-million dollar budget and programming objectives? If you were a recovering alcoholic, does this make you more capable of running a large residential program for addiction treatment services?

In any kind of job, we set out what we require the worker to do on a regular basis and some tasks that may be done on an infrequent basis, and what types of skills or training we might expect in the individual at the minimum to fill these duties. For example, if you are looking for an administrative assistant for your non-profit organization that provides supportive housing to people, what skills and qualities might you look for in such an individual? I would expect that this person have excellent oral and written communication skills, significant skills in organization, training and experience in working with Windows business applications, good listening skills, and the ability to use accounting software and to manually re-check figures down to a monthly trial balance. A radical consumer perspective would say this person must be homeless or have been homeless, which to me is not as important as having those other above skills.

Why is it important to consumer groups that people have "been there"? They want people who have empathy and understanding toward their client group. They do not want to have people serve them that have bad attitudes and prejudice against people in their 'group'. Empathy is an important trait to have, but empathy does not necessarily come strictly from "being there" and even among those who have been there, this does not make them necessarily "empathetic". I have been in positions of authority that involved the hiring of personnel, as well as dealing with personnel issues and policies. In one agency where I was in charge of human resource issues, I successfully made an argument to the board to create a job sharing arrangement for the position of its executive director. This type of arrangement was practically unheard of at the time, as the board naturally would want a full-time executive to oversee its $2.5 million budget and 14 ongoing initiatives. The existing executive director wanted to temporarily reduce her hours as she had young children at home and the person with whom she would share her duties was somebody who was seeking greater challenges within the organization. At the time, I had no children. However, this executive director was a fine worker and did have children and it was important for her psychologically to seek a better 'work-life' balance. This would lead to her 'in office' hours to be even more productive, knowing that she had more time for her family.

I remember long after this initiative passed and she since returned to her full-time duties. She wondered why I was able to understand her needs, when I had no children at the time and wasn't concerned about daycare issues and so forth. I responded that as chair of human resources my responsibility is to our employees and to maximize their productivity and support a 'work-life' balance. For her, the issue was children. For somebody else, it may be the care of an elderly parent. For another person, it may be a disability issue. I do not have LIVE these issues in order to understand how they relate to that person's happiness and productivity within the organization. As human resource chair, I took the term resource seriously. How an organization sets up, designs and designates its human resources effects how services are delivered to those in need.

In another example, I have experience as a person with a disability. I know how it affects me, as well I know how I am best accommodated regardless of the type of job I am doing. However, a colleague of mine may also have experience as a person with a disability; her experience may have reflected even more negatively on her life or more positively than my issues did on mine. How does a potential employer of either of us justify hiring one or the other of us based on "life experience" as the primary factor when indeed both of our perspectives, while both valid, differ substantially from one another? Even two people with the same disability deal with their issues in completely different ways ... I've met many examples of the "angry blind man", as well as the "passive user of a scooter" (that didn't think social issues were important to her life). Again, both perspectives are important, but neither addresses how much skill either of these people have in doing a particular job.

What this "life experience" issue does is politicize the positions and make them open to a form of favourtism and bias, based solely on the opinions and political views of those doing the interviewing and hiring. I have heard from women who did marvellous work in the community for victims of rape and post-traumatic stress disorder, but who were turned away from prospective positions on a board or on staff because they did not believe Karla Homolka was completely innocent of her crimes, or that they did not share the sexual orientation of the key leader in the organization. I have nothing against persons with different political opinions or people with different sexual orientations; it is just that none of these things determine whether you can do or not do a particular job. People in these situations certainly do have a right to an opinion, but an opinion does not equal expertise.

For example, there was once a program where people who dropped out of high school were solicited to sit on a panel and write a report on how to keep people in school until they graduate. I don't think it is necessary to be a high school drop-out to provide expertise in this area, although I do feel high school drop-outs can contribute their opinions and experience to an expert panel that has training and knowledge in educational and curriculum matters to explain how their school experience could have been made different for them to encourage them to stay. Then the experts can translate that experience, while continuing to consult with the drop-outs and others with an interest in the issue, to re-formulate the school experience to make it better for everybody.

But unfortunately, this is not what we're getting. We have untrained mental health consumers providing counselling to other mental health consumers, many of whom could be quite fragile at that point in their lives. Some consumers do not believe in psychiatry and medicine, for example, for the treatment of mental health issues ... while this belief is not necessarily without grounds, it is risky to pursue this option with somebody who may be better in an environment where trained professionals can work with them. These same untrained consumers go to boards, councils and policy meetings to try to get more money for theirs and other similar organizations by trying to make the argument that consumers have some kind of "preference" to work with other consumers. This assertion is of course not backed up by research, but should be considered suspect once in funder's hands ... although it is never questioned in the way it should be, or are funders pushing for any kind of quality control.

Again, I am not saying people who have problems should not be delivering services to people of the same experience. Many independent living centres have developed a broad range of services for persons with disabilities and at least half of their staff must be persons with disabilities. From the want ads for many jobs in the independent living centre, they do expect some type of credentials as well as some "direct experience in working with persons with disabilities". Boston University's Centre for Psychiatric Rehabilitation has as its director a person who is trained as a Psychiatrist, but he has also been diagnosed as having schizophrenia. Jean Campbell runs a large consumer-controlled research and evaluation network and she is endowed with a PHd, as well as being a consumer herself. Mary Ellen Copeland has written a number of books on coping with various mental health issues, and has herself advanced to a Master's Degree. However, this does not seem to be the case here in Ontario, where anti-education and anti-credentialism continue to rule the roost.

This does not only apply at the local level but also at the provincial and federal level as well. An experiment people can try is to ask the paid leadership of consumer-based organizations what levels of education they have and if they claim nothing beyond high school (or even nothing beyond grade ten or eleven), ask again how they feel they developed the skills to do the work they are doing. If they are doing legal research, this takes training. If they are doing financial management and budgetary planning, this also takes training. If they are doing public relations and advocacy, this also takes training. If they are developing a skills-based course, and are attempting to evaluate its effectiveness, this also requires training. No amount of "personal life experience" in the world is going to teach people how to do these essential elements of a job.

One does not need to look very far to learn that many (though not all) of these organizations provide mediocre services and advocacy work. I personally do not feel I am represented as a person with a disability by any of the mental health and most of the cross-disability groups although a few of the cross-disability groups are starting to "get it" and understand what a democratic process is about and what inclusion really means. For example, I enjoy working with ODSP Action Coalition, Citizens with Disabilities - Ontario, Canadian Association of Professionals with Disabilities, as well as a few more traditional groups that are attempting to develop and broaden their democratic processes. The leadership of these organizations structure themselves into committees which everybody with a disability can join and everybody's voice gets heard on a near consensus basis. While not a disability organization, but utilizing a 50% structure of persons with disabilities on all committees, the work being done on the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act is also very broad-based, representative and has the set-up to bring in broad public input into its deliberations.

But what is mediocrity? Mediocrity is a consumer offering 'self-help' group meetings, where the facilitator often does not show up and if they do, they do not know how to truly facilitate discussion and maintain confidentiality of their proceedings. I once managed a small consumer group here in the Niagara Region that was set up for both families and consumers and some of my members attended meetings and events held by other groups, both in the region and the province. In the small meetings, discussions tended to go off course. People's private information somehow accidentally gets disclosed or discussed in other groups. At the provincial level, a workshop on board development ended up to be a rant on how the gays and lesbians empowered themselves, as the facilitator for this workshop walked around the room smoking a cigarette. I've also heard of cases where people were seeing these consumer leaders for "counselling", often coming back more confused ... often they were told they should be going off their drugs or seek so-called "naturopathic therapies". While I have nothing against these choices, these choices need to be delivered and explained by a professional person and monitored as they are chosen.

People who are paid to facilitate these groups must have training in human behaviour, as well as how to deal with people who may be in deeper need than what the group situation can offer. Psychologists and social workers that operate these types of groups have this training. Others do as well, but most "consumer" leaders don't. Just as I, as a Licensed Paralegal, has to know the difference between the type of work I can competently assist or represent a client with ... and what work I either should or must refer to another Licensed Paralegal or Lawyer. As part of being licensed, regulated and accountable, you are ensuring that a consumer of service is receiving the right type of service and is getting it from the most competent provider. For example, many of my colleagues in the legal profession - Paralegal or Lawyer - know very little about human rights law, so they refer to me. I, in turn, refer them work in provincial offences or bankruptcy matters. Other times, economics rules and Lawyers refer to Paralegals that specialize in certain areas because the law office cannot complete a certain type of file economically (e.g. an accident benefit claim that does not have a tort component, a landlord/tenant issue).

I also speak up a lot at Coalitions, meetings, councils, position papers, etc. While I do not disclose private or confidential matters of clients, I generally speak of how people are affected by a certain law or policy. I talk to my clients too on important matters and register their concerns. For example, many of my clients cannot work at all, so I do talk a blue streak about how this group of disabled persons is being discriminated against. This does not include me, as I consider myself in the labour force, just not happy being self-employed (though the work I do is fine). I continue to speak of single people with disabilities, even though I am married with children. I speak of those with additional income sources, such as private pensions, EI, etc. and how unfairly they are treated. For me, I only push the CAP-D agenda and the need for more accountable services.

In employment, for example, our only national mental health consumer group thinks it is fine to replicate a program of somebody else's creation, BUILT Network, and develop and enhance its growth across the province. But, did any of you who have mental health problems ever get asked by anybody about the type of work you want to do? Of course not. BUILT Network, while suitable for mildly disabled individuals who are job ready and possibly high school educated who may know their way moderately around a computer, is not suited for everyone. This will not get people with higher education and professional qualifications into their careers. It will not help those for whom only self-employment is an option, nor will it help people that require a substantial amount of job coaching. For those entering call centre type careers, this is high risk ... most of those jobs have high turnover and for many employees in this type of work, they find it stressful - particularly somebody with problems to begin with.

Did anybody ask ME what I wanted? Of course not. Nor is there a detailed evaluation of the program carried out by an external body with no interest in the results. BUILT Network is not the only program that is guilty of mediocrity and promotion of mediocrity; many job programs are developed so that participants do not enter jobs that pay more than $8 - $10/hour. BUILT Network is just following where the money is, as opposed to what consumers really want and need, much like other programs. I said the same about the Job Bus, ODSP, Ontario Works, etc. It is easier to put your eggs in one basket and not challenge the status quo by truly improving the lives of your consumers. A large component of these programs must be advocacy, but unfortunately, this is sadly lacking - possibly because many of these organizations are based as charities, or because the people running them do not know how to effectively "bite the hand that feeds them, but still get fed".

But unfortunately, as long as the public and those served by the various programs passively accept less than satisfactory and services that are not consumer-based, individualized services, the majority of people needing these types of supports will continue to be without service or receiving ineffective service. It is important now to look at what qualifications these jobs require, hire better trained and skilled staff and invite professionals with disabilities, skilled immigrants, older persons with significant experience in these areas, and our labour market needs will be more than met ... until then, we are wasting too many people who are now wasting their lives on OW, ODSP or in low-paid jobs that do not take their skills into account or even pay their bills ... while some others continue to work in jobs that are well over their heads and remain accountable to nobody.