Monday, June 25, 2012

TURNING THE TABLES ON SOCIAL ASSISTANCE REFORM

The much vaunted, long awaited and hoped for Social Assistance Reform Commission was appointed in the fall of 2010.  It provided an initial consultation paper last summer and as recently as March 2012, revealed its second discussion paper.  Over one hundred and seventy five respondents were posted to the Commission's website on each of these occasions, many of whom will read this blog entry and understand the concept of irony and oxymoron. Many of us have concerns about this review and what is going to happen once it reports back to the government and its recommendations are made public.  The latest report by the Commission is that it will complete its said recommendations by the end of this month or early next month, and have the final report released to the public in the fall, likely mid-September.

To give you a bit of history, this review was a key plank in the province of Ontario's Poverty Reduction Strategy, which included Bill 152, the Poverty Reduction Act.  This is no lie. All political parties passed this legislation with much fanfare at the time and substantial public support.  Part of the legislation was to appoint the Commission, so that it can review all social assistance programs and make recommendations that would reduce the complexity of social programs and reduce poverty in Ontario.  However, like the Drummond Report (which reported publicly on February 15th of this year), Social Assistance Reform Commissioners Frances Lankin and Munir Sheikh were given marching orders from an austerity minded government.  To me, they were asking Lankin and Sheikh to decide the fate of Solomon, while deferring to the banks, the bondholders, the wealthy corporate elite and the pandering anti tax crowd.  In other words, they were asked to become the oxymoron that an austerity agenda would make of any efforts on the part of any government to reduce poverty.

Don Drummond, principal author of the Commission to Review Public Services of Ontario (or the "Drummond Report", for short), Frances Lankin and Munir Sheikh, are all intelligent, well-respected individuals, with grounding both in government and in economics.  They know intimately that Ontario cannot cut its way to prosperity, or cut substantial numbers of public sector jobs without having a negative impact on private sector employment.  They also know that welfare rules that forbid people to grow assets, build a business or form families, militate against poverty reduction, and as such, given free reign, I do believe that all of these individuals would be making quite different recommendations if they based their analysis solely on best practices and the actual objective of poverty reduction.

However, beholden to an austerity agenda that was neither created by or leading to any benefits whatsoever to the target population of this initiative, Lankin and Sheikh are euphemistically expected to create a miracle by finding so called "efficiencies" in the two social assistance programs in Ontario, namely, the Ontario Works and Ontario Disability Support Program.  This story kind of reminds me of the Biblical parable of Jesus feeding the hungry, from a small amount of wheat and a fish, to multiply His Holy offerings over hundreds of people, each of whom had at least a full loaf and fish along with wine.  Except this time, there will not be an endless supply of loaves and fish.  There may only be one loaf and one fish to cut up in many thousands of parts, while the Ontario government continues to feed the wealthy of this province virtually all of its wine and fine caviar.

The agenda of this Social Assistance Reform was clear from its second discussion document, whereby it seems that the myth of employment being the sole route out of poverty further prevails, whilst neither Commissioner pretends to be instructed to find ways to fix the labour market in order to make this so.  A fix of the labour market is not on the Ontario Government's agenda.  We only need to look as far as the federal government with its recently planted reforms to the Employment Insurance program, temporary foreign worker program, and related initiatives, such as eliminating employment equity requirements from the Federal Contractor Program and reducing budgets for important enforcement bodies, such as the Canadian Human Rights Commission.  As federal Finance Czar James Flaherty stated, "There is no such thing as a bad job", as he relates to his distant past of coaching hockey and driving taxi (likely before his Princeton pedigree education and successful career as a lawyer and politician).  I am sure if his government completely had its way, it would eliminate the need for minimum wage and health and safety regulations; they are such an impediment to business anyways.

At the same time our Honourable Minister Flaherty reflects longingly on his early 'careers', both he and the rest of us know he will never have to do a "bad job" again.  Lest all the "bad jobs" that Canadians refuse to take because they pay too little, lack any benefits, offer inconsistent and irregular hours, and potentially destroy the soul of the bearer should they even last more than a mere few weeks, are now the new pathway for the poor and unwanted Canadians.  Flaherty reassures us that no middle or upper class crust will ever be forced to take these "bad jobs", but if you dare make a claim for Employment Insurance and by extension, social assistance, you may be asked to take one of these jobs, never mind that you are trained as an engineer, a teacher, a social worker, a manager, or even an artist.  The poor will get their hands dirty because the middle and upper crust of our society will not have to.  Simply put, we are following the ways of the UK, for example, that take the willingness to work and dreams of inclusion by persons with disabilities, and deliver them to the worst jobs that nobody else will take, perhaps for less than minimum wage.

In fact, in the second discussion paper produced by the Social Assistance Reform Commission, it is posited that a substantial raise in Ontario Works and Ontario Disability Program Supports would make it "unfair" to those that already work in these "bad jobs".  Poor people on social assistance deserve to be poor because low wage workers in "bad jobs" are also poor, so why should people on social assistance, including people with disabilities have it "better" than those in bad jobs, hence the assumption there are even enough "bad jobs" to go around for everybody in the first place.   The federal government refers to "labour shortages", which euphemistically refers to the fact that not enough Canadians are willing to take low wage jobs with no benefits, at a time when housing and other commodity costs have been driven skyward.  The answer to reforming social assistance is to get people out of welfare poverty into working poverty ... as if this will accomplish a damned thing!  So much for the Poverty Reduction Act, as the Ontario Government can just say it can't be done because we have to pay back this massive deficit their wealthy friends helped to create.  Never mind thinking outside the box and asking why we have so many "bad jobs" to begin with ...

Another theme that is repeated throughout the second discussion paper is to divide people with disabilities up between those who can and those who cannot work, as if it were that simple.  As an academic that had developed both employment and self employment initiatives at the provincial and federal level, I can tell you there is no "test" that will positively affirm somebody as being "able to work" or "unable to work".  Ability to work in fact is not related to the severity of one's disability, but more the social, economic and attitudinal barriers held towards persons with various kinds of disabilities.  I once wrote in this blog about how accessibility begins at my front door.  People believe that the installation of a ramp, widening doors in buildings and setting desks lower to suit persons in wheelchairs, will make this whole group of people, voila -- instantly employable.  This alone is not taken into consideration that somebody will have to get to the workplace each day, and reliably so, on their own power and be able to remain consistent.  There is no test for this, nor can this be determined based on the type of disability or diagnosis one has.  Two people with the exact same disability and limitations may have a very different set of opportunities and barriers.  Virtually none of these issues are properly reflected in the report, as this bears upon "fixing" the labour market.

Nevertheless, the above constraints are ill considered when such "tests" have been issued in other jurisdictions.  Persons dying of terminal illness, blind persons, quadriplegics and others, even if they can just move their thumbs, can be deemed employable, simply by showing up on time for the so called "test" - of course, disregarding the probable trouble, substantial efforts and barriers one likely had to go through just to get out the door as well as probable help received for the same that cannot be relied upon again and again, if one were to replicate this reliability in a real job.  In the UK, those deemed employable lost a substantial portion of their income benefits, even if they cannot find a paying job.  There is no rationale for lowering the incomes of people deemed employable, as I have yet to see housing prices, grocery prices, transportation costs, and so forth, lower accordingly.  All this does is spell an imminent crisis for many people, and in tune with this, hundreds of people subject to this re-evaluation have died, many by their own hand.  For example, if we drop the already inadequate allowances of $1,064 monthly income for persons with disabilities to the welfare level of $599 per month, what do you think is going to happen?

When I discussed this with some people who I randomly encounter or meet with who have never experienced this level of desperation, they told me they believe they will just "get a job".  If this was in any effect true, if they were looking for work while receiving $1,064 a month, their chances of finding a job would certainly not change once their income drops, and as a matter of fact, they might be less likely to find work, given that it costs so much to conduct a good job search.  Interview clothing, stable housing, a telephone contact, references, transportation, and so on, are not free the last time I checked.   Henceforth, when I asked further of these same individuals, many of whom are themselves employers, if they would hire any of these folks, and almost universally I am told, they would not hire social assistance recipients.  If they will not hire them, why do they think somebody else will?  It is my belief that unless government somehow forces employers to hire people from the Ontario Works or ODSP rolls, and to accommodate all disabilities, it will never happen on its own.  The marginalized will always be marginalized unless the labour market gets a true "fix" and employment opportunities are created for everyone that wants and needs a job.

Putting more people out into the labour force to look for jobs is not going to create more openings.  In fact, all that will happen is there will be more and more unemployed persons looking for the same number of vacancies.  Statistics Canada recently reported that there are between three to six and a half unemployed persons (meaning people who are already currently looking for work) for every single job vacancy.  That means if we filled every single job vacancy that exists, there will still be another two to five or six people without work for every filled vacancy once all the jobs are taken.  The Social Assistance Reform Commission is supposed to look at ways to make sure these remaining people do not lose their homes, their health or their families, but instead, it appears by the tone of its second discussion paper, the Commission intends to answer to wealthy corporations that are feeling a "shortage of labour" in its lowest paying, most unstable positions, as opposed to trying to find ways to make all jobs "good jobs".  Working poverty is becoming more and more of a problem without any apparent attempt at a resolution.  A good friend of mine had a heart attack after she attempted to juggle three minimum wage jobs to support herself and her three children; now, she cannot juggle any job and was forced off on ODSP.  With enough "bad jobs", it is inevitable that the human soul will be crushed and no longer able to function in such a capacity, leaving labour market reform an absolute must if the Social Assistance Reform Commission, any government of the day, or even the business community as whole, wants to see less people on "the dole".

Another set of recommendations appears to make ODSP operate more like Ontario Works; in fact, one of the proposals is to combine ODSP and Ontario Works into one program.   That means punitive rules as they exist for people on ODSP will never be changed, regardless of the negative impact these rules have with respect to maintaining people in legislated poverty and preventing their reasonable chances of escape.  One example many in the disability community want to see changed about ODSP is when a person receiving ODSP marries or lives common law with somebody, the income and assets of their partners should not be considered when evaluating one's continued eligibility for ODSP.  As somebody who has worked in the advocacy community, I see how this particular rule has forced many persons with disabilities to remain with abusive partners.  In some cases, they are cut off when their partner or spouse refuses to cooperate by not handing over pay stubs to ODSP officials.  Eliminating the necessity of this would allow more people to form relationships, as well as provide the person with a disability a way out if that relationship becomes toxic.

Henceforth, I have noted that relationships between ODSP recipients who are largely unable to work, with a partner or spouse who does work at a more than minimal basis, rarely last.  Their health worsens, as they are not permitted to stop working, or take breaks, or get sick themselves ... lest they risk losing a lot of money, leaving their bills, including their rent or mortgage unpaid for several months until adjustments are made, as earnings deductions are made for income earned currently in sometimes a few months' time when there is no longer any work income coming in.  I have represented landlords at the Landlord and Tenant Board, where these kinds of relationships have broken down in the way I describe above, and almost always, an eviction is inevitable.  With the current loss of Community Start Up and Maintenance Benefit, it will only be that much harder for the person on ODSP, either on their own, or with their newly unemployed or ill spouse, to find a new place to live.  Sadly, I have seen it go the way where when the spouse splits, they become under employed or sick themselves, and thus a new benefit unit is created as a result - which only costs more money, two shelter allowances as opposed to one. The last I heard, homelessness is not cheaper than housing somebody, even at full cost.  I am sure any austerity minded politician does not intend for more good money to go after bad; in other words, would it not be more cost effective to prevent the heavy costs that homelessness, persistent poverty and long term unemployment are bound to create?

Merging ODSP with Ontario Works is certainly going to cement these very counter productive rules that do not serve people with disabilities or encourage them to fully develop to their potential.  I will accept spousal income being included to determine the income of the other spouse when ALL people who are paid by public funds have to deal with it.  Premier McGuinty's income should be split in half and taken from his wife, if she works, regardless of where or how much she makes.  Spouses that are eligible for CPP, WSIB, OAS, and any myriad of other programs of various types should also lose their benefits if their spouse works, even a little bit.  If you see what it does to a family with a disabled spouse, you can only imagine the chaos that would ensue if this rule were universally applied, including politicians, civil servants, as well as others that work in jobs paid for by tax dollars, such as the postal worker, the bus driver, the teacher, the police officer and so forth.  No more double income, no kids, folks ... everybody will have to live on a single cut down income, and continue to pay for rising costs.  If you think the divorce rate is bad now ...

Finally, there were a number of proposals concerning employment supports.  While I share the concern that employment and education supports are very important and that a goal should be to get as many people into good jobs as possible, or training for good jobs of the future, I fear the proposals will not result in this.  There are merits to consolidating all employment supports under either Employment Ontario or through a local service agency, but the devil is usually in the details.  One would want to know what this means.  Does it mean the monies that are currently spent on the most effective programs will now be further spread out, thus slicing the pie even thinner for more participants?  Or does it mean a continuation of the same flawed formula used for ODSP's employment supports programs that appear to encourage or reward service providers that can most quickly get candidates into a job ... any job, even one that is beneath the person's talents, aspirations and educational attainment?  In my discussions with people, it appears we have to move cautiously on this one: we want to make sure that everybody who is seeking employment or to advance their education and training, has access to the necessary programs that will help them do so.  We must see the full range of employment candidates served, ranging from the most needy, vulnerable and inexperienced, to the most well educated, but currently unemployed person seeking a career-based job.  Greater use must be made of head hunting agencies that are experienced in placing professionals into jobs; perhaps, contracting with them to assist qualified OW and ODSP recipients in accessing the higher paid jobs, while supports for disability and other related issues can be provided by other agencies.

This means service coordination, something we were once allowed to do as Employment Supports Service Providers, where we can work with other providers to achieve best outcomes for single clients, while sharing the fees for service for the direct services provided by each partner to the client.  Somehow, this has become lost under the new delivery model, whereas each Employment Service Provider takes on the full range of services and as such, may not be able to service some persons that tend to be lost or fall between the cracks in most of these situations.  People with good educations are told they can't be served and are often told they have "more qualifications" than the employment support worker has.  They get told to negotiate their own accommodations, to negotiate their own job descriptions.  This means the job seeker that cannot drive a vehicle for disability reasons has to confront an employer to try to address the job description that seems to ubiquitously require one to have a driver's license and personal vehicle.  In other words, you must already have a job and the financial means to own and maintain a reliable vehicle at commercial insurance rates; if you are disabled and cannot drive, but can otherwise fulfill the other parts of the job, you are toast.

To me, if one is working in this field and is delivering employment supports, it is up to the employment supports worker to negotiate job descriptions and so forth, even before a candidate is proposed to the employer, so that the employer becomes more aware of his or her obligations under the Human Rights Code.  It is not the job seeker's responsibility to do this, because when this is done, if ever, the employer will only select the next person on their list that isn't as difficult to place, e.g. somebody who drives.  There are Employment Supports Service Providers that have successfully placed professionals and executives in positions, although they are not as common as those that work in disability specific areas.

If the Social Assistance Reform Commission and Ontario Government truly want to reduce poverty, increase participation in the paid labour force by all persons, including persons with disabilities, it must be a voluntary and well supported initiative, not based on a threat to the person of loss of benefits or reduction in income supports.  Earnings disregards should be designed to ensure that the person is always much better off taking the job, or working in self employment.  Persons who are not likely to engage in paid work should still receive sufficient benefits to allow them to not have to live in poverty.  If there is concern that low wage workers will not perceive this to be "unfair", then serious labour market reform is a must, which should include increases to minimum wage, easier rules to develop and organize unions or other workplace structures that encourage mobility and advancement.  However, if we are to persevere on the so called "unfairness" of raising social assistance rates versus how low wage workers are treated, neither group is ever going to advance and any poverty reduction goals, as well as saving well earned health care dollars, and so forth, will all be for naught.

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