Sunday, September 18, 2011

... A COMMUNITY THAT IS DYING TO THRIVE

As I might have stated before in this blog, I live in a very conservative, willfully ignorant and at times, divisive community. At the same time, there are elements within this same community that are trying to present themselves, and become a cultural force and eventually a political force.

The Region of Niagara lacks organized opposition to the current destructive path our governments are taking us down: the path of austerity for the poor, and socialism for the rich. When I personally speak to people, or discuss issues in informal groups that gather in coffee shops, at street corners, at Tim Horton's and other places, without triggering a reply, these individuals reflect the same kind of worries and concerns that I illustrate here on this blog.

At the same time, I met many ordinary individuals that, while they are generally kind, funny and productive with their lives, they do not understand the culture of the "other". One such man met with me and we had a chat about the economy. He told me that they should limit people's stay on welfare for a short period of time, and then force them to get off the system. As attractive an option that may be, I ask, where will these people go to when their time is up? He told me, "They'll get a job". This is the thinking of people who have likely not spoken to or met with somebody who is struggling to get off welfare. If they would "get a job" at the end of their time on the system, they surely would get a job earlier before the clock stops ticking, in my not so humble opinion. This is because that is what they want: a job. At another forum, a participant posted that there were almost 500 jobs listed on the Job Bank, a program offered by Service Canada. I then asked if they knew exactly how many unemployed workers there were, and whether all we needed was 500 jobs to create full employment. If Niagara has 9 - 10% "official" unemployment rate, chances are it is double that in the "real unemployment" figures, given many people have long since given up looking for work, or have accepted work that is not full-time or permanent. This would mean up to possibly 40,000 people in Niagara would be seeking employment, or deem themselves to be grossly underemployed.

As a professional service provider that works in the community, I see what happens at the grassroots. I ask questions all the time. To the man who told me that the welfare recipient at the end of their time would get a job, I asked if he would hire that person. After all, he runs a small construction company and he is growing his business. He told me he would not hire that person. I then ask him, if he would not hire this person, what gives him the idea that "somebody else" will? He did not know. I know why, although he might not quite understand why. These problems are always considered to be somebody else's problems, not our own. We talk a lot about what employers "should" be doing, but as employers, are we willing to actually take these issues on, and do our part in the public interest?

I spent time working on the AODA Standards Development Committee, and met many wonderful, smart, intelligent and outspoken individuals: some were spokespersons for organizations, such as the Chamber of Commerce, the Canadian Mental Health Association, the colleges, the universities, and the civil service, while others were individuals, including entrepreneurs and persons with disabilities themselves. I don't think a single human being in that room felt that persons with disabilities were unworthy of being hired and offered promotions, and so forth, equivalent to their peer groups. The debates were hearty, passionate and at the end, compromise was reached, sometimes while standing on tenterhooks. It reminded me of a process that one learned judge told me when I first started practising: "You know when a mediation worked when all parties to the mediation end the session with their lower lips to the floor". We all walked out at the end of our final submission happy in some ways, not so happy in others, but we can live with it.

I returned to my own community to find a lot of the knowledge and passion lacking in many otherwise intelligent, well-meaning and positive people that are considered our community leaders. Report after report here points out that there are openings in jobs, but no takers. This is not because people are lazy and do not want to work, but because there is a disconnect between the employers that want workers, and the workers that want jobs. Nobody is integrating this puzzle, to create the mosaic the Niagara workforce needs, which would become an inclusive and improved labour force, as opposed to leaving the low waged, insecure and "bad" jobs for the people on welfare and disability, while keeping the "good jobs" for people who are already part of their own networks.

The other day, my husband and I were walking down the main street of downtown and I pointed out to him where various businesses shut their doors, others opened theirs, and others are having difficulties. Niagara College moved its employment program downtown, and Business Education Council moved downstairs from where it was previously located in the Landmark Building. They are promoting "older workers", many of whom were thrown out of work and have the expenses of a mortgage, kids in post-secondary education, car payments, and so forth, but nowhere to go. I just hope this organization is not fooling the older workers by making them believe there are good jobs out there. This is particularly interesting given that I did take a scan of the Job Bank selections when that individual pointed out there being 500 jobs, and most of these jobs are low wage, temporary or otherwise, not appropriate for an adult that has financial responsibilities.

At the same time, candidates are sweeping the area for the next provincial election saying only if we threw more tax cuts at rich people and their companies, we can get more jobs and investment in the Niagara Region. I am angered at these politicians, both as a business graduate as well as somebody who has an IQ beyond her shoe size. These tax cuts were in the making over the past couple of decades. If this worked, Ontario and Canada would be booming with employment opportunities. It would be a worker's paradise, where a worker can walk into a company and pretty well name his or her price. However, the "full employment" definition kept creeping up from 2% to 4% to now, around 6%, meaning that somebody in the federal government knows that tax cuts are not doing the job that politicians are trying to tell us they do.

Canada and Ontario have to begin to deal with the social safety net that was designed for a time when we really had full employment and short term mean short term. and people with disabilities were not being squeezed out of having any quality of life like they are now. The simple fact is that business thrives only when people buy from them. If everybody around them is poor, and the business is not selling a good or providing a service that is as base as rent and perhaps, groceries, then that business will suffer with at least a couple of million people in Ontario that just are not buying anything. People who are poor do not go to the movies, do not eat out at restaurants, do not buy clothing from the clothing stores, do not buy big screen TVs, do not buy cars, and if they have an old car, do not get gas very often and from what I have seen, many have tried to drive without insurance. All of these companies that do not have these buyers are receiving less revenue, and as such, are not as able to hire as many people as they would otherwise be able to, had this whole group of people been able to participate in the economy.

Giving tax breaks to wealthy people does not grow jobs, at least in the way politicians are claiming. Even a millionaire family of four only need so many groceries, clothes, gas for their car, and will only eat out so often. There is an equilibrium in terms of how much a consumer will purchase to receive their maximum satisfaction. What the wealthy do with the rest of the money is what is important, and research has shown they do not spend the rest of it in the community. In general it is divided between savings, and non-labour intensive purchases, such as a family vacation to Disney World.

If they are business owners, the tax cuts come AFTER they hire their last staff person. A new employee is a complete write-off for taxes, and tax liabilities are transferred to that employee and not the company. The money that is left is profit, and that is what is taxed. A company that is charged less tax on the profit is not going to suddenly need and desire to hire more staff. Instead the company will divide the profits among shareholders or reinvest it into long term financial instruments. No company I know of will hire more staff just because they feel like it; companies are not charities. Staff are utilities in helping the company get its work done, and to get paid. If a company can hire chimpanzees and robots to achieve the same goals, they might just do that - but fortunately, this technology has not reached the state where this is possible.

In this election, the Progressive Conservatives, under Tim Hudak, is all about tax cuts. There is very little new spending other than a 6% boost to health care, to reflect what is status quo now at the federal level. McGuinty's agenda is similar. Both parties assume that the average family income in Ontario is still $93,700 - likely taken from the last Census. We know this has substantially changed since the recession of 2008, but we have no numbers since Harper scrapped the long form Census. The whole idea of allowing families to split up to %50,000 off the high earner to add to the low earner's income is insulting to the majority of people that don't even earn close to $50,000.

Further, Hudak's talk of providing relief to families means nothing to families where one of the spouses is on ODSP. ODSP conscripts the working spouse into its rules, thus creating a family income that is capped at best, and at worst, leads to family break-up with the disabled person losing all benefits and income of their own, leaving them susceptible to abuse and isolation. The working spouse can work all they want, even around the clock, but they will not be able to bring their family out of poverty. In situations where the working spouse is self-employed, ODSP's rules about self-employment put the family's financial health into even further jeopardy with rules against the self-employed spouse hiring employees. What? Isn't this government about helping business and creating jobs, yet it will not allow these businesses in particular to hire employees? The effect of this is that it caps the self-employed person's income, as it is impossible to earn on their own more money to get the other spouse off ODSP so they can live more normally.

I talk to people about this all the time. 95% of the people I speak to are shocked about this, as they never knew any government in Canada would do this to people, and punish spouses of persons with disabilities. I point to the relatively low number of people on ODSP that even bother to get married, and yes, they understand that. I also helped a gentleman get onto ODSP a few weeks ago, and when his case was transferred, he called me to seek advice on what he needs to do to leave his wife, as her income left him qualified for nothing. I warned him that if he does leave, ODSP will require him to file a lawsuit for support against her to get as much of her income as possible, so she will continue to have to subsidize ODSP anyways. This is ODSP's way of continuing to shift more of its costs onto persons with disabilities, a group that can least afford to pay this cost.

These people are in the market, on the street corners, in Tim Horton's, or who run their own businesses, and they ask why one person's business is not allowed to hire employees, but others are? Perhaps, if Hudak was that concerned about removing the "burden" from families, he can start right there. If he does, I can guarantee a groundswell of support from many people in the disability community. If they stopped counting spousal income against the very low rates of the person with a disability, the family income would double without the government adding a single penny to the program. I say this, because what I see happening are spouses that are stopping work and then living on the other's disability allowance, because they are finding working to support the WHOLE family too exhausting. On a similar note, a friend of mine was working three minimum wage jobs and ended up on ODSP now, because the human body was not built to work without breaks, for very long hours at a time, and to burn to the candle at both ends. If I hired you to work for me, and made you work sixteen hours in a day, without paying overtime or minimum wage, and in fact, asked you to pay me back half your wages, I would be convicted by the Ministry of Labour ... why is the government allowed to do this to those that are trying to get ahead through self-employment? This is why some of our small businesses downtown had to close down in a hurry, because the entrepreneur was not able to support his or her family on less than fifteen cents on the dollar. Think about it.

Those objecting to hiking corporate taxes whine about losing the incentive to invest. What do you think these rules and regulations do to potential entrepreneurs that are attempting to work themselves either off ODSP, or to increase their family income as a family with two incomes, instead of one limited "see saw" income that caps the worker at a level well below the poverty line? Does fifty percent of the income of politicians come off their spouses, if they are working or receiving any money from another source? I doubt it.

The walk to the market each day is fraught with people wanting a piece of my time. I am the one who took an international fit to get regional transit in this area. I am the one that asks the questions that need to be asked. I litigate whoever needs to be litigated. I am not afraid. But the whole world became much smaller for me over the past few weeks, trying to do computerization of all my files, while still trying to get some essential work done. The days are getting shorter and the night falls, making it lonely once again, when I don't want to be alone.

In the day time the buskers are out. At one time, right after Jack Layton's death, one of them was out by Coffee Culture singing from a script. She was singing Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah, and the words to this made me cry. Like when is this going to end? When are we going to see less people die? One of my clients told me about three who died from a drop-in centre in one month alone. I used to do this as the executive director of the Niagara Mental Health Survivors Network. I attended a lot of funerals, and organized a lot of memorials.

I am so afraid if the political people that get elected this October 6, 2011, do not want to learn about the "other", and re-focus away some of their priorities from constant tax and service cuts, and start listening to the people that matter, that we will be organizing a lot more funerals and memorials for people who die in their thirties, forties and fifties, after living a life of Hell.

Your thoughts?

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