Wednesday, October 31, 2012

WE NEED TO ROCK ON TO ELECTRIC AVENUE ... and then we'll take it higher!

Down in the street there is violence 
And a lots of work to be done
No place to hang out our washing 
And I can't blame all on the sun, oh no 

We gonna rock down to Electric Avenue 
And then we'll take it higher 
Oh we gonna rock down to Electric Avenue 
And then we'll take it higher
Eddie Grant, Electric Avenue (1983)

I don't care if the Social Assistance Commissioners say it is a bad time to be on welfare in Ontario.

I don't care if the Social Assistance Commissioners say that it is a bad time to be writing reports on how to reform the welfare system.

Carol Goar hit the nail on the head with her article today in the Toronto Star, which includes a reference to barriers to reform, such as people with disabilities not wanting anything to do with the report and its recommendations.

Yes, this is true.  As a disability advocate, I look through these things with a human rights lens.  Not a single reference to lifting the spousal penalty, increasing the earnings exemptions for people on ODSP to match what the lucky few can get in gifts; or allowing people with disabilities to retire in some form of dignity, especially if they are working, have worked or their spouse is working.  What about encouraging those that choose to start and run their own businesses, so they can enjoy the same rights and deductions as others in business enjoy?  Yes, people with disabilities want to work, but this report recommends continuing to cut them off at the knees and still expect them to walk.

Poverty Free Ontario got their analysis right.  They explained why people with disabilities have good reason to fear what is in the report.  Instead of some form of dressed up and shiny new workfare model being imposed only on those deemed capable of securing employment, the recommendations go as far as to suggest that persons with disabilities should be lumped into this same category. Many still fear if they do work, they will now be at risk of losing their benefits too.

The Conservatives learned from their mistake when they forced those labeled deemed "permanently unemployable" to stay out of the workforce, and for those who tried, they lost their benefits altogether, jeopardizing their ability to keep a roof over their heads and food on their table.

The Conservatives learned at the time not to mess with disability benefits because one such person walked out and tried to better herself, only to be cut off her benefits completely for the sake of a job she can do for ten hours a week at minimum wage.  In response, she killed herself.  The case made front page.  The case made the legislature.  The case made a forever bleating class of advocates even madder at the Conservatives.  Let them be damned if they allow people with disabilities to die!

But, why do these Liberals seem to believe we can try something like this again, and not expect to see province wide implications of a monumental degree?

Have we lost our way with understanding why some people will simply not make it in today's unreliable, precarious and punishing labour force?  For those that want to work, I see no problem with allowing them, even encouraging them so they can earn up to the same amount of money that people on ODSP can receive in gifts each month or year for each person in their "benefit unit", before the 50% claw back.. I see no point in punishing these people.  As one person told me, most people had to go through "circles of Hell" to qualify for ODSP in the first place, so why are they trying to take that away now?

The Social Assistance Commissioners repeated the government's mantra that there are too many people on ODSP today.  They wring their hands wondering why this is the case, even though advocates have told them that when people get cut off WSIB, long term disability, get denied EI and CPP, they have nowhere to turn to.  Government and the Social Assistance Commissioners, who will be forthwith referred to as the "SAR Czars" are pretending these same people can just go get a job.

Of course, it is easy for middle class and upper middle class folks that are used to having a range of decent opportunities before them to choose from, who were raised by intact parents in intact households and had a head start, to tell those less fortunate than they are that they need an "incentive" to work.

This "incentive" unfortunately is becoming much the subject of debate.  Self employed give up more than they earn by way of claw backs.  Those living with or married to working spouses lose most or all of their income support under the guise that somebody else is supposed to pay their bills.  Recommendations from the report even suggest dropping the Work Related Benefit AND the Special Diet Benefit in exchange for the "right" to keep a whopping $200 a month in earned income before it becomes clawed back.  If the tax department told all of our millionaires that their tax deductions and corporate handouts will be provided under the same rules, I am not sure the reaction to this proposal will be much different than the reaction we are seeing from people with disabilities, who will not, by the way, find jobs overnight.  It is cuts for people with disabilities that have the greatest challenges in the workplace, to help prop up those on Ontario Works by a very modest amount.

Even then, our illustrious Social Services Minister tells us that we as a province cannot "afford" to boost any of the benefits.  Take this statement with a grain of salt (with a whole damn shaker thrown over my left shoulder to keep the Devil at bay), as this same government has no trouble paying for over $5 billion in tax cuts to the wealthiest corporations, over $1 billion for eHealth (remember those $3,000 a day consultants that even had their Timmy's treats paid for?), another billion or more for ORNGE with its head somehow earning over $1.4 million a year; and lately, up to a possible billion dollars spent to move two gas plants to satisfy a couple of dying Liberal constituencies.  Dalton, where do we people with disabilities apply for these well paying jobs that seem to be unavailable to us?

It doesn't even matter that the Premier and the Finance Minister thought about tax cuts first for the wealthy when they came up with their 2012 budget.  Well, they can take the money for this OUT of the pockets of the poor once again, with their cuts to the Community Start Up and Maintenance Benefit and Home Repairs Benefit.  Instead of admitting they are cutting the monies spent on this benefit in half and sending it to the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing for distribution to the municipalities to do with as they choose, they also introduced a seemingly unrelated tax cut for home renovations for rich elderly people that want to stay in their homes.  I guess you seen that Premier Care Bath commercial, where a seemingly healthy senior gets into their jacuzzi like tub amidst their washroom that appears on screen to be much bigger than most of our living rooms ... seniors get this tax credit if they can front up to $10,000 themselves first.  I have an idea about this one.  If they can afford to front $10,000, they're going to spend that money anyways,  so why do they need a tax credit for Pete's sake, when down the street their neighbours on ODSP cannot find the money to stop their house from being a mould infested nightmare?  So be it.  I digress.

We had a wonderful town hall here in St. Catharines at the Start Me Up Centre on October 16, 2012, with over 150 people in attendance to attest to how they were helped by the Community Start Up Benefit or Home Repair Benefit in the past.  Without this benefit, many of those in the room would have become homeless, or worse yet in some cases, dead.

Yet, who exactly is the genius that figured out this new shell game that determines that people on Ontario Works and ODSP can somehow scrimp and save from their monthly pittances to cover the growing costs of moving, replacing furniture that gets ruined by bedbugs and other infestations, or escaping an abusive relationship?  I suppose the government thinks that either they are all hiding money or can get "family and friends" to move them, which is just a big a crock as their allowances for "gifts" of up to $6,000 a year that only a handful of ODSP recipients benefit from.  Middle class families haven't seen family break down to the same extent that poor folks have, unfortunately.  Many of them don't have families - period.

How about those homeowners that do happen to get assistance that cannot afford to fix their roof, or their plumbing or their foundation that is riddled with mould and cracks to such a point, their whole house is unstable?  I know people like this in Niagara.  Their city tells them it is unsafe to live in there.  Their insurance companies drop them a hot potato.  Their mortgage company decides to foreclose on them because they don't have any insurance.  No insurance, no mortgage, no home,. says the bank.  But there simply isn't anybody around anymore that will help pay for this mess and allow people to stay in their own homes.  Just keep watching the media, folks.  I am coming back!

I don't care what Carol Goar, the Hamilton Roundtable on Poverty, many municipalities, and so forth, say about this report.  Most of it is a bad idea and by far.  Their idea of an adequate allowance means depriving those sick enough to need a special diet from the additional funds they needed to buy the right foods to keep them healthy.  Pay for it from your basic needs, they will say.  But what if there is hardly any basic needs left after I pay the rent?  That's your problem, they say.

Unfortunately, folks, we have to do much more than what have been doing.  Sitting in a room talking nicely to government officials is no longer working.  My region in all of its wisdom decided to replace the start up benefit, but for only those on Ontario Works.  People with disabilities, I assume, can just take it out of their basic needs, which are already stretched beyond reason here.

To me, this government either has to hire every single person with a disability that can work and place them in their chosen fields at the going rate that others get paid to work in that same field or give them enough money to live on!  People in prison eat better than persons with disabilities living in the community.  Perhaps, some enterprising researcher can speak to medical people to determine the cause of the rising incidence of recalcitrant TB, scurvy, rickets and other organ killing malnutrition based diseases we previously believed only happen to those people in the so called "third world".  It is now in our backyard.  That's why our health care costs are going up.

A report recently stated that poverty is costing Niagara alone over $3.8 billion a year.  Yet the region's fathers continue to choose to ignore this growing tsunami by trying to divide us up.  We can't let them do that to us.  We must stand together, or remain divided and lose all of our rights.

Out in the streets, all of us!  Out to our MPPs front door, all of us!  Find out how each regional councilor voted on the question of depriving people on ODSP any further help and let's pitch a few tents on their front lawns.  We have nothing to lose but our chains they have trapped us in.

Don’t you understand what I’m tryin’ to say
Can’t you feel the fears I’m feelin’ today?
If the button is pushed, there’s no runnin’ away
There’ll be no one to save, with the world in a grave
Take a look around ya boy, it's bound to scare ya boy

And you tell me
Over and over and over again, my friend
Ah, you don’t believe
We’re on the eve of destruction.

Barry McGuire, Eve of Destruction

Tuesday, October 16, 2012


The buzz on the street came as a big surprise to the people of Ontario.

Premier Dalton McGuinty not only announced his pending resignation (which takes effect after a Liberal leadership convention is called and a new leader appointed), but he rabbited from the scene by shuttering the doors to the Ontario legislature. Observers speculate this might have something to do with being caught with his pants down, as both Opposition Parties continued to peel the onion only to reveal more and more monies wasted on things like ORNGE, eHealth, OLG, and most recently, as we learned, the movement of two gas powered plants to different locations in order to appease voters and save a couple of Liberal seats during the last election. After being found in contempt of the legislature, by motion of the two Opposition parties, against his minority government, McGuinty rabbits.

For those among the curious, to prorogue a legislature (or Parliament, where McGuinty's perceived model Stephen Harper has himself done the same thing twice when the going got tough for his own prior successive minorities), it means all bills, committee referrals, public business, etc. is shut down. This is not the complete dissolution of the legislature, which means an election, but a shut down, which means a brand new Throne speech and a new session from scratch ... as all previous bills and business in progress is wiped from the slate. A motion passed by the majority of MPPs can technically adjourn the house business to allow bills and so forth to remain and such work to continue once the legislature re-opens, but this is not usually the case.

Voters should be furious at the latest trends by both federal and provincial governments that prorogue their legislature at the first sign of reasonable expectation of accountability. This prorogation, marked for now as indefinite, is supposed to theoretically end once the Liberals and likely the Opposition Tories return with yet another austerity budget and further spending cuts for the lower and middle income Ontarians, and under a shiny new leader with supposedly a "fresh" mandate. Almost nothing else has been discussed in my community circles in the past couple days, not even the weather, and I have yet to find a single soul among those I spoke to who actually WANT a shiny new Liberal leader. Most want an election, however, some are concerned that if the Progressive Conservatives under Tim Hudak get elected, even deeper cuts and further privatization will ensue.

I was a meeting of over one hundred and fifty warm bodies this afternoon that were notified only through social media and some community postering, where cuts to the Community Start Up and Maintenance Benefit, Home Repair Benefit and certain discretionary benefits for persons in receipt of Ontario Works and/or ODSP were being discussed. The majority of those in attendance were ODSP or Ontario Works recipients, many of whom benefited from either or both benefits in the recent past. At my table, where I volunteered to be a note taker, several horror stories emerged. A man who owns his own home has no functioning toilet and a broken sump pump. He has to use a broken toilet in his basement. He did not apply to ODSP Home Repair Benefit before the June 30 cut off, which by the way, was only announced approximately thirty (30) days prior to the cut off by inserting a notice of this in recipients' cheque stubs for May of this year. There is no parallel program in place at the Region yet, where theoretically, municipalities are supposed to be given all sorts of "flexibility" to meet their local housing needs.

Another woman used the start up benefit to escape an abusive situation, and moved into a room. Two years later, she applied for subsidized housing and eventually was moved into a unit. However, like most subsidized housing complexes, the building was poorly maintained, nothing ever got fixed, and the police were over there "at least three times a day" for anything ranging from drugs, to domestic abuse to violence, on the property. She had applied for a transfer twice in then same number of years, and has been denied. It seems that the region does not mind keeping poor people in slums, and exposed to the worst that society has to offer. It seems that fear, anxiety and exposure to whatever vermin in the home is acceptable for "those people", while those of us with middle class niceties deserve better.

Another man is living on Ontario Works. Until recently, he lived in a three bedroom apartment with two other roommates. The apartment rented at about $900 a month, plus utilities. Then one of his roommates finds a job in another community, and leaves the apartment. The other one left shortly thereafter to move in with his girlfriend, leaving this man holding the bag with nothing but a $590 OW cheque, and a worker that refused to give him anything more than the first month's rent if he even finds a place within his impossibly tight budget. Beside him were his backpacks, and a luggage bag, all containing his worldly possessions. Now homeless, it is difficult for him to secure the necessary benefits to be re-housed, unless he can tolerate AND find space in our local shelter system (which according to the region, funding is being cut for these services too).

Another fellow told us that he had bedbugs at his place last year. He lives in a rent geared to income unit. The Community Start Up and Maintenance Benefit was secured to assist him in replacing his bed at the time. He expressed his disdain as he recently secured a part time job, only to see his rent get hiked at over 500%. Housing subsidy calculations haven't changed a bit since the eighties when I was forced to give it up for market rent in order for me to budget month to month. For this man, who also receives ODSP and is subject to at least a fifty percent clawback on his earnings by ODSP, his housing provider disregards this clawback and counts only his gross income, thus leaving him ultimately with less money on hand than he had before he started to work. Yeah, get a job, they say ... if working only paid.

Another woman was homeless, but recently was able to secure Community Start Up and Maintenance Benefit when the shelter she was living in helped her find a low cost room downtown, at least a place to lie her head at night. As of January 1, 2013, even this benefit will be gone. Stated with enthusiasm by the Liberals, like they usually do when recycling and repackaging old money into new, municipalities will now receive the dollar amount of these benefits, after they have been chopped in half, and managed exclusively by them as determined by "local priorities". This means the dollar amount of the CSUMB and the HRB is now going to be cut in half, and redistributed to the cities and regions to do with as they choose, as long as it vaguely deals with housing security issues. Any municipality can conceivably decide NOT to offer a start up like benefit at all, or even home repairs, but instead use the money for other priorities, such as fixing social housing units, or building seniors housing. or funding more shelter beds. If they choose to offer these benefits at all, it will have to be spread not only between all people on OW or ODSP that might need them, but others as well, who are not on assistance, but might be living in poverty. The loaves and fishes again. The trouble is this is not going to work.

When these benefits existed before the cut, they were fully appealable for those that feel they were unfairly denied access. After the changes, any worker can decide at a whim whether or not an applicant "deserves" this benefit, and there will be no appeal avenue whatsoever for those that are denied. As for those who experienced any kind of application process through Ontario Works in many municipalities, there is a lack of consistency between clients, and often arbitrary criteria set for how these benefits get distributed. I hear from people that work for Niagara region all the time how they will pay half the cost of dentures for those that need them, yet I know far too many people wandering around without teeth. They allegedly got told all sorts of things when they tried to apply. Some got told the money for this had run out (yep, this was in the middle of May, less than two months after the start of the new fiscal year!). They tell others they only help out Ontario Works recipients who are seeking employment. All sorts of excuses abound. For those "lucky" enough to get help, only half the cost is covered, and somehow the OW recipient has to find the other half out of their $600 monthly budget, or in the case of ODSP, their $1062 monthly budget. Or, as I have also witnessed, people get told they can write to myriad charities to demean themselves and beg for help.

One would think that Charles Dickens has long since died, and the days of Oliver Twist should have been over with for good, once it has now been proven that large corporations in Canada (and Ontario) are literally sitting on billions of dollars, or have socked them away to offshore bank accounts. I say, get rid of Oliver Twist and make these companies pay our government back for the deficit they caused and obviously benefited from! They certainly aren't creating any jobs with it, nor is anybody holding these same executives accountable for billions of dollars in corporate welfare dished out to them without them even having to prove a need, nor are they being asked to show how many jobs they created as a result of massive tax cuts they received year over year. Yet when somebody applies for Ontario Works, their entire life is scoped inside and out, and they are judged as to their "worthiness" of help. Given the amazing wealth of our country, there should be no need for food banks, homeless shelters or anything of the like. In fact, there was once an anecdotal report from somebody that entertained guests from Scandinavia, who never even heard of these things and wondered why anybody would want to put food into a bank.

Political leaders live a relatively charmed life. They do not have to deal with the same pressures those they govern have to. They do not have to live with the results of the greed of those they represent and speak for, the corporate elite. Most political leaders are almost guaranteed sweetheart deals at the helm of large corporations once they leave politics. It is no small wonder how they got there, regardless of that individual's actual business and financial knowledge. The powers that be appoint the political drop outs or exiles these jobs as rewards for their loyalty while in political office. In recent months, one highly respected federal Cabinet Minister decided to resign his seat and move to the "private sector". He was given an executive position at one of the chartered banks. Must be nice, when the most the rest of us can expect to get when we apply to a bank is a low paying job as a teller. And Jim "no such thing as a bad job" Flaherty will not likely return to his yearned for youthful days when he worked as a taxi driver and hockey coach. It is easy to prescribe these things for others when you no longer have to do it yourself.

In the meantime, the Social Assistance Reform Commission, which originally promised to report their findings to the world in June 2012, and has since delayed the release of their report three times, recently announced they were going to go public with their final report this October 19, 2012. However, with the Premier rabbiting on us all, and leaving behind an empty legislative assembly for an "indefinite" period of time, the Commission's most recent notice reads: Led by Frances Lankin and Munir A. Sheikh, the Commission is charged with examining social assistance in Ontario through engagement, research and analysis to provide the government with a concrete action plan to improve the system for the people who need it.

Please note: we are rescheduling the release of our final report from October 19 to a new date in the near future. We will announce the new date soon.

It might be interesting to see if this report ever sees the light of day. Our lovely Premier that oozed with such enthusiasm, while all parties of the house embraced its Poverty Reduction Act and held out much hope for the Social Assistance Commissioners to figure out how to fix our social programs to make them work better and to reduce poverty. Those were the days when our lovely Liberals literally endorsed the target of reducing poverty by twenty five percent in five years, and how they were bound and determined to succeed. Unfortunately, Premier Dad has since abandoned the homestead as Ontario's poverty rate has actually increased, as opposed to decreased. Are you feeling like the orphaned child yet?

Henceforth, many of our social advocates were concerned about what kind of recommendations and policies might be proposed once this report ever did get released anyways, namely the proposal to combine Ontario Works and Ontario Disability Support Program all under municipal "welfare" administration. The Toronto Star or the provincial Liberal Party mouthpiece still tried to pretend this was all well and good, as late as last week. However, disconcerting is one paragraph in this piece:

For too long, politicians have pigeonholed welfare recipients into two types: the “good poor” who were helpless (children and the disabled), versus the “bad poor” who were hapless (able-bodied men and women). After all these years, the lesson to be learned on welfare is that the origins of these cases matter less than the outcomes.

Why not merge these two unwieldy Harris-era programs (ODSP and Ontario Works) into a single, more coherent system that doesn’t discriminate between “good poor” and “bad?” This is the kind of bold idea that scares some people — advocates and bureaucrats alike — because $8-billion programs aren’t built or redesigned in a day.

With this proposal, instead of having "good poor" and "bad poor", all that will now be seen by the public is all "bad poor". This is happening in UK, as that particular Coalition government is forcing that country's poorest to pay down that country's deficit. Austerity is killing people, they say. Nightmare reminders of the Nazi Holocaust has perked this individual to write this column. Since these cuts in the UK, a few dozen suicides a month have taken place, as well as there being a spike in the number of hate crimes against persons with disabilities. If the government thinks that doing that here will be different, because we are supposedly more humane Canadians, think again. Even without this change, I am constantly hearing from people without a clue, the temporarily able-bodied as I might add, who proclaim that "over half of the people on ODSP should not even be on it". Is that so, I ask? It is interesting how their extrasensory perception and intimate medical knowledge of over 300,000 very poor people comes to mind, but this same perception is not shared about how many billions are poured into the pockets each year of wealthy executives and profitable corporations through our government's failed policies of corporate welfare and endless tax cuts, while money hoarding (as alleged by Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of Canada, that recently reported that large companies are hoarding billions of dollars of cash and not investing any of it, aka. taking in corporate welfare and benefiting from tax cuts while creating zero jobs), doesn't even matter.

After the cuts take effect in January 2013, more people will have no place to go, other than to a shelter or to the streets, as a result of various reasons tied to their deep poverty and a punitive social assistance administration that on average, among the people I previously interviewed in my region, cuts off or suspends Ontario Works recipients' cheques four or five times a year, often resulting in eviction and/or frequent moves. And the government might actually consider adding people with disabilities to this mish mash of economic slavery as well? Many people reading this do not and will not understand the significance of this, but then again, they are too damned comfortable for now.

There, for the Grace of God, go I.