Wednesday, February 18, 2009

A POVERTY-REDUCTION PLAN THAT ISN'T...

The federal budget was what I predicted it to be.

A mish mash of handouts to big corporations, tax cuts, as well as billions of dollars in spending on so-called infrastructure. There was some promise of reform to EI, which it seems fewer and fewer people get each year, but this came up short whereby people are essentially getting nearly what they got ten years ago from EI and the same stringent criteria continues on. In my view, this budget does not put one more meal on anybody's table or another penny in anybody's pocket, other than those who already do okay.

I learned one so-called bright light yesterday as I watched Prime Minister Stephen Harper with his full set of teeth, sans blue sweater and hair greyer than it was before Christmas ... side by side with Ontario's Premier Dalton McGuinty, appearing skinnier and geekier than he ever was, both announcing new funds for better GO Train service in the Metrolynx boundaries, which of course do not go as far as Niagara.

Henceforth, when I attempted last year to get some answers as to why the GO Train is not even being considered for Niagara, the answers were sort of what I expected. First, you need to have a strong transit infrastructure, as well as convenient parking spaces for GO users. If you lived in Welland, for instance, and didn't drive, a GO Train service leaving Niagara Falls or St. Catharines would be useless to you. How are you going to get to the GO station? Even if the powers that be insisted on putting GO service here, they would defeat its purpose and not take a single car off the road, as there will still be too many of them, zinging from all points of the region to get to the GO station. This still does not change the fact that Niagara is more expensive to live in because having a car and driver's license is still your sole ticket to citizenship.

Poverty activists want to focus on the "housing" announcements. As I stated before, I see no point in making housing a social service. Housing is a necessary commodity, much like food, clothing and clean air. Unfortunately, "housing" in the eyes of many of these people comes attached to social workers that want to control the lives of more people who end up living in this "housing". To me, the less control you put into somebody's life, the better quality of life they have, but then I never have the final say in these things.

Further, others cry for "subsidized" housing or rent-geared-to-income housing. I have tried, but have been unsuccessful, in getting these folks to tell me how this takes people out of poverty. As one fellow blogger under the name of co-opcracy writes, working is counterproductive if one is living in subsidized housing and receiving some type of benefit, such as social assistance or even ODSP. First, ODSP chops your net earnings in half from the very first dollar and then "housing" increases the rent to a point of an additional clawback of thirty five cents on every dollar. Once the earnings are grossed up at the end of a year, even more money is lost. The intelligent and prudent thing to do when in this situation is to stay at home and eat your bonbons.

Further, because subsidies are calculated at far below the maximum "shelter" allowance given for social assistance and ODSP incomes, one would receive far less benefits from social assistance or ODSP than they would if they were housed in the free market. This means one's income would continuously remain under the so-called "poverty line". While housing costs are lower, this does not stop other costs such as food, clothing, transportation, telephone and other costs from skyrocketing. How subsidized housing reduces poverty has always been a trouble spot for me, possibly because of my background as a policy analyst as well as lived experience.

Thinking from the centre is not mediocre for sure. I get attacked from both the left and the right for my views, instead of either/or. I ask questions, but don't get answers. I own my own home, but still I am flat broke. What help is there for me? Certainly, me, my family and thousands of other homeowners in the same boat are not going to sell and move to some unit where they will be under the thumb of some crazy bureaucracy. People need to be as independent as possible, as well as free to advance their circumstances, or else poverty will become a permanent fixture in our society -- bringing even potentially middle-class families down with it.

I would tell the government to save the billions of dollars they would otherwise spend to build units of this type, but instead use it to increase the money in the pockets of individuals and families, so that people actually have choices. Right now, the low-income contingent of our society has no choices. They are told to live as their social worker tells them to, which is to never make a mistake ... therefore, never learn from them. They are told to live within their means, but are never given the means to live. They are told to "get a job", but employers are not told to hire such persons or to pay the people they have decently. As usual, society wants the poor to play a single handed tango, while the other partner can watch and criticize. How can we as a society possibly value people who have been so disadvantaged that we have to instinctively reach out and control their lives, as opposed to giving them choices and opportunities ... yes, some of these folks will fail, but then again -- many of us who have never been in this situation have also failed, many of us miserably.

How many so-called "normal" people have bankruptcies on their record? How many so-called "normal" people can't seem to ever lose weight? What about all those successful professionals that turn to drugs and alcohol to deal with the stress of it all? What about so-called "normal" people who drive a car one day and forget to do the all-important shoulder check and get into a horrible motor vehicle accident? How many "normal" people are smokers? How about the typical friend of ours that always seems to "pick" abusive partners? The rest of us herein do not have strangers telling us what we should be spending our money on, whether or not we should be driving a car, or whether we can manage our own bank accounts. So why are we allowed to pass judgment on those less fortunate than we are? Are we trying to block the way for the poor from becoming less poor, and perhaps, grabbing a bit of dignity while they're at it?

To me, there is maximum dignity in having choices and opportunities. Those of us who have had these things take them for granted. We "assume" that everybody else also has these things, or had them at one time. Then, we bash them for making "bad choices" or "failing to take advantage of opportunities" (even though they were likely never given any). This is not a leftist rant here. I have a legal practice full of people from all walks of life, some of whom were very advantaged and cultured, others that cannot understand what life would be like for them if they could make their own basic choices. The latter have had the system make choices for them all their lives: they were told where to live, had their money spent for them, what to wear and who to be friends with ... never being allowed to choose is tantamount to imprisonment.

I grew up in a rough kind of way. As a young adult, just before securing my post-secondary education and so-called empowerment as a professional person, I knew two things. One, people must have the right to make choices, even bad choices. Two, people have the right to have access to opportunities to advance themselves and improve their quality of life. I got into a lot of trouble for my beliefs. Many social work types tried to downplay my ideas and tell me to be more "realistic" and insist a certain portion of the population continue to be spoon-fed (while the social worker types continued to get good pay cheques for doing so).

When somebody is living on ODSP and in subsidized housing, they do not have the opportunity to advance themselves and improve their financial situation. Their efforts become like a hamster on a spinning wheel, whereby they work harder and harder but end up in the same place. For every dollar they earn, they lose just as much. People in "housing programs" have even less choices, as many of these programs disallow overnight guests, alcohol use, earning money from a home-based business, etc. I've seen people evicted from so-called "mental health housing" for stopping their own medications. This leaves people with no choice. When you can only make the "right" choice, you cannot make ANY choices.

When you take away the choices of people, you take away their dignity. You also reduce the value that society will have of that person. When people feel we have to make decisions for others for whatever reason, we are not valuing that person's own opinion, own tastes or own desires, nor are we allowing that person to fully develop as a mature human being. When we don't value somebody in this way, these folks DO feel it. They feel it when they have to go to the food bank to get their groceries. They feel it when somebody tells them where they have to live and what they can do and can't do when they live there. They feel it when nobody appears concerned about their lack of opportunities and options.

I meet people who want to move out of subsidized housing all the time. This is very difficult to do. Several relatives of my husband were living in subsidized housing twenty-five years ago when I met him and despite marriage, children growing up, etc., they continue to live that way today, as do their children. Enforced poverty breeds enforced poverty. This provincial government promises to "break the cycle" in one breath and even names its poverty reduction plan the same thing, while at the same time, wants to entrap more people ... this makes no sense to me. Open the doors, I want to say ... and make employers open them too.

Today, the employment standards development draft went to public review. This is from one of the committees I sit on, except with the Accessibility Directorate of Ontario ... where for the better part of a year, three dozen people worked hard to put together a set of standards we will be expecting of employers, spanning between one and five years from now, with respect to the hiring, retention, training and accommodations for persons with disabilities. To me, the standards don't go far enough, but we were working within a certain regulatory framework ... a framework that has to fit within the province's business model as well as reach the goal of bringing more qualified persons with disabilities into the paid labour force.

I am hoping that folks reading this will review the proposed standard on its website and send their input to the stated body on how our standard can be improved to meet the needs of persons with disabilities and get more of them into the workforce. The standard can be found by clicking here to the website. Your input must be given by April 15, 2009, in any of the given ways provided by the webmaster.

While access to employment and business opportunities will help improve the outcomes for people with disabilities, we also need to focus on bringing them out of poverty. Poverty is the killer of the soul. It is punishment for a crime one never committed. It kills any initiative one might have even had before they became poor. Both a focused effort on reducing and eventually eliminating poverty through the development of opportunity and increased access to meaningful choices in improving one's well being and quality of life, is what is needed. This would envelope both the needs of persons that can and want to work, as well as those that cannot.

We have to defeat the poverty industry, the set of organizations, leaders and spokespersons, that make a living or gain personal notoriety on the backs of the poor. These are the people that run the food banks, the homeless shelters, the "housing" programs, vouchers, consumer/survivor drop-in centres, etc. without considering that the people they are "helping" should learn how to fish some day and be given the tools and the right to do so. If this means some of the people in the poverty industry lose their jobs, so be it ... if one were an effective leader in a sense, this would not be a worry for them whatsoever.

I am very concerned that some of these organizations are now asking for government money. Should taxpayers be funding food banks, or should they be financing programs that allow people to choose and purchase their own food? Should taxpayers be funding homeless shelters and "housing programs" or should we be funding initiatives that help put money into people's pockets to the point they can reasonably choose where and how to live (within reason, of course ... not everybody's going to move to Forest Hill or Bridal Path).

What is really needed when the day is done are ideas on how to make this happen, not how to bolster the status quo, which we all know has failed us miserably. Your thoughts?

1 comment:

Roni Bartlett said...

I am a single mom on ODSP. My youngest child is ACSD. I would love to see the people that make up the rules and regulations for geared to income houses live under their advice for just 2 months. I dont think they could. I lived in geared housing for 9 years when my kids were young. It was very difficult. I was only able to get the housing as a result of an abusive relationship. There was nothing sacred when it came to housing either. They new everything about you. All your personal information right down to your bank info and illnesses. Your childrens schools and report cards....absolutely everything. I felt violated every year when I had to "re-apply" although nothing had changed. I have not lived in housing in several years now. I now rent a market rent bungalow in the country for health reasons. Shelter allowance from ODSP is just $800. That has to pay rent, hydro, phone, and any other bills you may have. I also get 750.00 for basic needs. I am very grateful for what assistance ODSP does grant me. The rent is higher in the country and the hydro shouldnt be but the delivery charges are more than in a town or city. My hydro with all that is going on with Hydro One right now is 890$ a month. This time last year it was 250$ Without hydro I dont have running water here. My furnace runs on oil. That is an additional 900$ in the winter months two fillings for a total of 1800$. Non of those extra costs are covered by ODSP. I chose to use a wood burning stove for heat this last winter as I knew someone with access to wood....but it didnt change my hydro any. If I have my hydro shut off I am covered once every two years for a maximum of $1000. If we dont have hydro as I mentioned there is no water....sanitation becomes an issue. As well as entertainment and sometimes homework (no computer or tv) We have to use candles which in turn becomes a fire hazard. How do we cook without water and use the toilet and wash our bodies...etc...

I strongly believe that ODSP should cover the cost of rent and then provide us with whatever "basic needs" amount is suitable to our family size. The utilities should be included in our basic needs amount. But it should be a reasonable amount. One that at least comes close to actual cost of living expenses. It isnt easy.
Sometimes I have to buy just lunch snacks and stuff for the kids to take to school instead of actual meat and other foods. We rely heavily on the food bank. I understand that ODSP should not be supporting people but, I didnt ask to become disabled. I didnt ask to become a single mom of two children. When I had my kids I was in a relationship with their father and we were both working. He was abusive. I got sick before I was able to go back to work. I didnt ask to get sick. It just happened. I worked hard as a home rebuilder before I got pregnant. Before that I was in the Military for almost 10 years. I worked hard. Every single day up until I had to stop working due to my illness. Not all people on "the system" are there because we want to be.I try not to waste money on stuff we dont need. Let me tell you, when you are raising a family on "the system" there is nothing you dont need. I am not perfect with money. I have alot of unpaid bills and such just like everyone else in the world. The difference is that a 100.00$ unpaid bill for someone collecting assistance may as well be 10 000.00$. Money is scarce and not easily manipulated. With the rising costs of everyday living.....and hydro gas etc....we are lucky to have a roof over our heads and what food we do get in our bellies. My family knows this well.