Some of us believe that Canadians treat their low income individuals and families well, compared to say, what other countries do. The middle class folks who have always lived this way, without ever knowing the feeling of living from paycheck to paycheck for the most part do believe this country actually helps its poor. Most of these same people feel that low-income people can become middle-class if they really pulled up their socks and tried.
The reality according to many sources - particularly the lived experience of people living in poverty - proves differently.
There are many types of poverty in Ontario and for almost all types, it is getting worse and much harder to escape. Stereotypes about who the low-income and poor folks are is just a beginning and unfortunately, public attitudes turn public policy. In Ontario for the past twenty years, this public policy has become public disaster.
The first kind of poverty includes the unemployed. There are less and less Canadians eligible to collect Employment Insurance today than there were twenty years ago. Before the unemployed officially were pushed off the marginalized category of our society with the rest of the low-income population, benefit levels more closely reflected working income and at least 85% of those that paid into the program were able to collect if they lost their jobs. Today, nationally less than four in ten workers are deemed eligible for Employment Insurance, regardless that they paid into the program for years before losing their job.
What happens to the sixty or more percent of those that do not qualify? These people get thrown in the trash heap sooner than those that do; however, with the present recession, even among those that do manage to collect EI, the likelihood that they will fall into destitution is real, given that the next step off the ladder is Ontario Works - if they can get it. But, let's continue with the EI poverty folks first. Benefits are presently capped at 55% of one's earnings or $423 a week, whatever is less. For a single person living in a medium sized metropolitan census tract region, this may be approaching poverty line. For a family, it not even nearly adequate. Assuming one gets the full length of payout (which most don't), benefits "run out" in 45 weeks.
While on claim, one is expected to search for and accept any work for which one is reasonably capable of doing. One must also be deemed always available to start work at any time during their claim. Those that attempt to leave the country for a brief vacation can get caught and lose a period of their benefits, if they are not excused for this ahead of time. If it can be proven that a job offer was given, but turned down, one can lose benefits altogether. The only saving grace one really has is the fact that administrators of the program during a recession like this one tend to be overworked and lack the time to oversee many of these things; however, people have been "reported" and subsequently accused of not being eligible, or even committing fraud.
Work programs for those who are eligible for EI (or who qualify for "reach back" for benefits that have recently been received) tend to be of a higher quality than programs serving other low-income workers, although many are reportedly difficult to access. One example is the Second Career Program, which many people found to be Kafkaesque in its application process and subsequent approval, after which it is allegedly determined that person applying must "prove" the new career they are attempting is actually going to result in a job. If anybody can adequately predict this, then we should be consulting the same people about lottery numbers so more of us can be winning the millions. Nevertheless, once one gets onto this program, it offers not only payment for the training, but also living expenses -- something unheard of for other low-income recipients that want to return to work.
This category of people unfortunately has since become stereotyped by the federal Conservatives as a group of people paid to sit at home essentially, thus their reasoning for not reforming the EI program so that more people are eligible for this "insurance" policy. However, if you are sitting at a lower step of the ladder in this caste system, those on EI are probably the best treated group of people living in poverty.
First, EI is yours and even if your spouse was a millionaire that owns hundreds of properties, your EI is not impacted. Even if YOU owned hundreds of properties, your EI is not affected. While there is a bit of a boot given to you to "get a job", you are not immediately at least forced into destitution and desperation like hundreds of thousands of other Ontarians are. But at some point, EI will "run out". Some will be lucky enough to find a job before that happens. Others have family and savings to rely on to stretch this idiocy a little longer. However, many others are forced onto the welfare rolls.
The majority of middle-class Ontarians actually believe it is easy to get "on welfare". The truth of the matter is that it is not. In fact, you have to burn almost all of your bridges, including family support, retirement savings plans and in some cases, your vehicle, before you can access this system. For those who have been on both EI and Ontario Works, they will almost unanimously tell you that Ontario Works is a lot worse.
First, the amounts one can receive is a LOT lower. There is no rational connection between the actual cost of living and what one is actually given on welfare to live on. A single person is supposed to find living accommodations for under approximately $360 per month. This does not even cover the cost of a room in most jurisdictions across the province. However, somebody on welfare is supposed to find housing of that price range. For many, this means losing their current accommodations, as for most people on welfare, their current accommodations cost much more than the total amount they get one their cheque, let alone just the shelter allotment.
To make matters worse, some welfare offices have harassed recipients who were paying more than this amount for housing, threatening to cut them off if they don't find "cheaper" accommodations. Others are given a form to complete to identify their total income and how they cover their monthly costs. Most, if not all of them, either don't eat most of the month or rely on a patch work of food banks, soup kitchens and occasionally, family. If it is learned that one is getting help from family or friends, their next cheque can be deducted by approximately the same value as that "help" received. So most that do get any of this help don't mention it. The fear and reality of starvation are too closely aligned.
On top of financial humiliation and abuse received by people getting Ontario Works, they are expected to take the fastest route to a job. A lot of research has gone into this philosophy and it was found that folks that did just this ended up back on welfare shortly thereafter, as the jobs they would get would often be low-paying, short term and have no benefits. Of course, welfare recipients are a boon for slimy employers that want to refuse minimum wages, or even any wages at all, or to employers that have a management style that includes bullying their employees -- using of course, the three month quit or fire rule in the event that a person is forced from the job. Welfare offices do have discretion on how they handle this, but many people still end up in its quagmire, which ends in homelessness and often losing what little they have.
Many people on welfare are disabled or have multiple workplace barriers. If they didn't start off this way, many of them end up this way. Therefore, such folks often aspire to apply for the Ontario Disability Support Program, or ODSP. ODSP pays roughly twice the amount a single person on welfare gets and some of its rules around assets and income are more liberal. However, with regards to assets, transfers from Ontario Works to ODSP aren't usually concerned about this, as they lost almost everything they have just by trying to become and remain eligible for Ontario Works.
Those that later go onto the ODSP program that have managed to keep their housing or some kind of housing are often quite far into debt by the time their file gets transferred. ODSP rules help in this case, as one is paid back to the time they first applied to the program and many recipients get months, if not years, in retroactive adjustment payments to help cover these bills. Some end up above the allowable asset limits for ODSP and are told to discharge the excess in about six months' time (and some are granted a longer period for various reasons). Most have no trouble doing so, as housing itself takes up an average of 73% of a market renter's ODSP cheque anyways.
The unique circumstances of ODSP recipients are such that they are made to live their lives in a similar way to people who are welfare recipients, only they get paid a little more to do so. While not required to take a job, many ODSP recipients feel forced to work in order to make up the gap in income required to pay their basic living expenses. For those that cannot work at all, living on ODSP for the long term is unhealthy and downright dangerous. For the person who once pointed out that 'poverty kills', this is in fact a reality. While many people on ODSP may have shortened lifespans due to their disability that brought them onto ODSP in the first place, there is hard evidence that poverty itself is even a bigger contributor to this quandary.
Life on ODSP becomes very difficult and isolating once its recipients discover that:
1. They will unlikely attract a spouse or life partner, as if they do - that spouse or life partner ends up being on ODSP too, even if they never signed up for it in the past. All the asset rules, earnings clawbacks, etc. that apply to the recipient also apply to the spouse, so there is very little incentive for somebody who is not already on ODSP themselves to get involved with a recipient.
2. If they are working, they will not be able to contribute to a retirement pension (unless they are also eligible for a disability tax credit which has a strict criteria and the program that is tied to - the Registered Disability Savings Plan - depends an awful lot on having wealthy and generous friends and family that can contribute to this account on your behalf ...). If they aren't on an RDSP, then they can't put into an RRSP, even if they can afford to contribute something - as one's assets are capped at $5,000 (for a single person).
3. If they do work, half of one's NET income is deducted right away off their next ODSP cheque. While some costs can be written off, most costs for working cannot be. Therefore, you probably would be netting just as much money sitting at home picking your nose than you will by working and maintaining your eligibility with ODSP.
4. Employment supports provided as part of the ODSP program are available to any recipient that wants to try to work, but again, this is complicated. They must sign on with a "service provider" whose job it is to help one get and keep a job. Service providers are paid on the basis of being successful in doing so, which all sounds well and good for accountability's sake, but what this in fact does is encourage recipients to once again to take the fastest route to employment. Again, slimy employers love this program, so more under-employed people can be hired to work for low wages, no benefits and no security. After all, as some of these slimy employers told me, isn't ODSP supposed to subsidize the minimum wage?
5. There are a lot of stupid rules involving loans being defined as unearned income, which ironically makes the recipient pay it back twice - first to the lender, then back to ODSP as an overpayment. A particularly large loan that is not approved in advance can cause a recipient to be cut off altogether in the month in which it is received.
6. Sometimes the recipient waits for the requisite Godot and manages to get into rent-geared-to-income housing in their respective region (average wait is five to seven years for a single), and later learns that if they decide to work and collect ODSP, their rent-geared-to-income unit costs them more as they earn more money, thus even COSTING them to work at all. ODSP will catch up to some extent, but again, you are expected to find shelter that costs $456 or less (including all utilities - good luck!). Once you hit that magic number with ODSP, you are paying out of pocket for the privilege of having a paid job!
7. At the same time, while ODSP recipients want to work as much as anybody else, many cannot work and others try, but encounter many of these stupid rules and quit trying ... the middle class public believe most, if not all, ODSP recipients don't "really need" to be on it. It is like members of the general public suddenly become doctors and are capable of assessing people they don't know from a distance as to what they can and cannot do. While the same folks that approve people to get on ODSP in the first place are sort of like that, they do have medical training and their decisions can always be appealed. But stigma from the public cannot.
So, while one is treated a little bit better on ODSP than they are on welfare, it is a double-edged sword that one cannot help but wonder if it is its own "kiss of death". ODSP is a legitimate program with legitimate need, but major reforms must be done to make this program almost unrecognizable and thus, more useful for the person with the disability.
The fourth category of poor is the elderly. Middle class Canadians believe the government wiped out elder poverty with the Old Age Security and the Guaranteed Income Supplement. The truth is unless you worked for a time as a public servant or were a well-adorned auto worker, it is not likely that you will be getting any pension other than that publicly offered by the government. CPP maxes out at just over $1,000 a month (and that is if you made over $40,000 most of your working career). OAS is just under $500. Guaranteed Income Supplement is for those seniors that do not get a pension and not enough CPP ... and I've had them in my office, folks. These people don't get much more than people get on ODSP (a difference of about $150 at most), plus these seniors lose the dental, special diet, medical travel and other benefits apart from drug coverage once they turn 65. Sounds like something to look forward to, eh?
This group of poor is not as stigmatized by the public as the other groups I identified above. It is just not recognized as being as large as it is by most Canadians. Something certainly has to be done with pensions to ensure NOBODY over the age of sixty-five lives in poverty.
The final group I want to raise is the working poor. These are folks that get no welfare, ODSP, EI, or pensions, but do get a wage - except the wage does not add up to enough money to pay the rent and feed the kids in the same month. It seems that more and more people are falling into this category and for many employers, it is perfectly all right as many of them do not want to pay what people need to live on or even what the skills of their workers are actually worth to the business. Many of these same employers are ironically great corporate citizens. They participate in the United Way drives, give major donations to the food banks and so forth, but lo and behold, they fail to realize that the majority of their employees are probably using these same stop-gap band-aid programs these employers praise in the media just to get by.
There is also a group of people that don't really fit in any of these categories, but may or may not be poor - at least at first, depending on the generosity of their accident employer. This is the injured workers under the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board, or the WSIB. At some point, I will write more about the politics of the injured workers' industry (and yes, this is a BIG industry) and what tends to happen to the person that actually got injured on the job through no fault of their own. In Ontario, since the early 1900's, employers bought into this 'no fault' formula that would pay workers financial compensation that does have some relevance to real wages (unlike most social programs like welfare and ODSP) until such point they recover or are able to return to work at a different job. The legal politics are there and the explanations complicated, but nevertheless, when the WSIB pie is divided up at the end of the day, it is always the injured worker that gets the smallest piece.
A colleague of mine called me up earlier in the year to ask me if I was noticing a widespread epidemic of injured workers being cut off of WSIB benefits at the drop of a hat, it seems. At that time, my caseload for WSIB cases alone had increased 400% - most of which include unpaid lost time claims and/or discontinued benefits. "Reasons" for being cut off are myriad, similar to those of people on Ontario Works and usually have something to do with "non-cooperation" and in the odd case, somehow a person turns up with a "pre-existing condition" they never had prior to the accident but this condition somehow has caused the injury and disablement blamed on the accident ... people working in this field learn how to speak a lot of double-speak and bureaucratise. If a worker has an honest claim, they will be paid, but it appears that the job of the WSIB is to either delay payment for as long as they can (hoping that a certain percentage will not bother to appeal) or try to deny it altogether by inventing some new rule or circumstance as to why the person is suddenly ineligible. The interesting thing is that the injured workers drawing the higher level of benefits tend to be the ones they want to kick off the system the fastest and the ones on the lower level of benefits tend to be steered into low-wage jobs ... sound familiar? I might sound like a conspiracy theorist, but I do believe our own government is working hand in hand with these slimy employers to provide them with a cadre of desperate workers willing to work for next to nothing.