The Agenda did a serious entitled "Why Poverty?".
Normally, The Agenda can present some interesting topics that people want to hear and they do bring in guests that can speak intelligently on these issues. This show is a refreshing change to what is usually found online where people blame the poor for their own circumstances and propose even more rules on them to keep them apart from others. It is somehow believed by the "average Joe" that poor people are more likely, for example, to have addictions, but the research on the issue does not bear this out. Chances are greater that one's colleague at the next desk or their boss is likely to be addicted, when compared to welfare recipients. Why isn't anybody proposing to test these people for drug use?
The Agenda first had Frances Lankin and Munir Sheikh, the authors of the quintessential social assistance review report, to discuss their final report and what they felt it would mean. As you are aware, I am no fan of this report and feel that even if it were fully implemented, not a single person on assistance affected by the report will ever get out of poverty. Unfortunately, I feel that both Lankin and Sheikh swallowed too much of the same Kool Aid that is being distributed among people in coffee shops, people driving stop and go on the Gardiner Expressway and people that feel that "if I work, why should THEY be allowed to sit at home?"
This is so frustrating, as the crux of their report essentially pits the so called working poor against those receiving either Ontario Works (OW) or Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) benefits. Apparently, they think there are too many people on ODSP and want to stem the tide of people getting on. They also want to get some people off it through their own version of workfare that will theoretically cover everyone, including those with severe disabilities and even terminal illnesses (similar to the way they do in the UK). They further want to put more responsibilities and management on the municipalities, which over time will ensure major cuts to programs for the poor because municipalities do not have the same taxing power that the provincial and federal government have. Because most municipalities are loathe to increase property taxes and user fees, they will look to cuts first and benefits for the poor are low hanging fruit.
The current situation with municipalities where people living in some communities can access a rich array of benefits, while others in other communities can only get the bare bones will only be further enhanced with the province's choices of its own priorities, such as: giving rich people tax cuts, giving rich seniors a "healthy home tax credit" to do repairs they will probably do anyways without the tax credit, and pouring more money in corporate welfare to various companies with the hope -- even the faintest hope -- that these companies will hire people off the welfare and disability rolls. Even companies that want to "champion" people with disabilities don't know the first thing about the true potential of people with disabilities. A government office will hire people with disabilities to water plants. An insurance company will hire a few in their mail room. A publisher/newspaper will hire some to deliver their publications. Higher level jobs that involve higher skills and higher pay will still be remote for people with disabilities, even among those that have the required skills for these jobs.
Barriers to employment will persist even with the report's full implementation. As one person told Steve Paikin's producer at The Agenda, "There are no other working people in Ontario that have fifty percent of their wages taken off, even though we pay the same taxes that everybody else does". The report recommends scrapping the $100 work allowance and raising the "earnings exemption" to $200 per month for both OW and ODSP recipients. I bet it cost YOU much more than $200 a month to keep your job, let alone even get one in the first place. Thank about the price of gas, car insurance, work clothing, lunches, coffee breaks, dry cleaning, haircuts, and in some cases, cell phone and internet access if required. The total bill for these basic items exceeds $500 - $600 per month for most people. You might not think so, but for those of you that have retired, you will note that you don't have to drive as much, don't need to dress up, can eat at home and can throw away the cell phone.
If you went to work and paid the normal taxes and deductions you normally do, plus lost fifty percent of what is left over, how much more willing would you be to work more hours, take on a second job, especially if your job does not provide much security and benefits? For those who are self employed, it is worse. Anybody in Ontario can start and run a business of their own. Canada Revenue Agency has rules that allow for certain deductions and tax rates for base levels of income, and depending on how your business is set up, Canada Revenue Agency is fairly permissive around such issues as hiring staff, investing in equipment, work related clothing, mileage and even something called "business meals". That is, if you have to work long hours and need to grab a bite to eat, or you are meeting with a potential client over lunch, the cost of this can be written off by fifty percent. The situation is totally different for self employed also in receipt of OW or ODSP.
Self employed people on OW or ODSP are not permitted to hire staff, so the business owner has to do absolutely everything in their business by themselves, which often means cutting into the time they could have to actually grow the business and make money. The government appears to believe that people with disabilities are only capable of running low skill, low cost home based businesses, such as dog walking, baby sitting, or envelope stuffing. After all, this is what employers would hire them to do anyways. This same thread of ignorance that crosses over for prospective employees with disabilities also affects the kind of businesses one can have. When somebody shows or demonstrates that they can operate a business that has more skill required, as well as a potential to get them completely off benefits altogether, OW and ODSP rules sabotage any attempt on the business owner to get ahead.
They are not allowed to hire staff. If their company is incorporated, the income the corporation receives (as opposed to the individual) is counted as income, which leads to the corporation being unable to retain earnings and keeping a base from which to pay taxes and other bills that only come periodically. The person is not allowed their CRA deductions, such as "business meals", work clothing or transportation beyond what is considered "reasonable". They cannot go to conferences and conventions unless the person is earning an income from this attendance, even if their profession or business requires this attendance. The OW or ODSP recipient has to choose to pay their business taxes or eat each month, or pay their commercial rent or to purchase clothes for their kids. There is no distinction made between the person with the business and the business itself, which leads to loss. Even the monies that are "left over" after approved expenses are ravaged and cannot be set aside to pay taxes later or to save for a large expense, or even contribute to a meaningful retirement plan. Nope. These people are not allowed to retire, unless they are satisfied with the dumpster diving level of income people without a private pension will likely get when they hit 67.
The social assistance review report ignored this issue entirely even though they claimed to be in favour of work incentives. Yet at the same time, I speak to many business owners as well as people on OW and ODSP that have paying jobs that actually quit because it is more financially beneficial for them to sit at home and pick their nose. When I raise the issue of treatment of business income, I get the same runaround that somehow OW and ODSP doesn't cover the business, just the person. Hello? Since when did OW or even ODSP cover all the basic needs of the person? Does ODSP even cover the full cost of one's housing, including utilities? Most people are paying between 70 - 80% of their entire month's income on shelter. To say that a business run out of one's home cannot write off part of the housing costs is ridiculous, as ODSP does not cover all the housing costs. This applies to food too. I am not aware of anybody that works and receives benefits that actually get INCREASED benefits to cover the cost of working, etc. True, they get a $100 "work allowance", but this is soon negated by the 50% claw back of everything else a person earns.
Further, the argument that this is taxpayers' money doesn't sit with me either, especially when governments hand out billions of dollars in corporate welfare and tax breaks to companies year over year that contribute little to the economy, and few have actually used these breaks to create new jobs. If we want to cut welfare, let's start cutting from the rich first. At least, they won't feel it as much. They may have to give up their fourth vacation and cruise to the Carribean or give up one of their Mercedes or rent out one of their five homes they own, but these people are still eating and living somewhere safe -- even without a penny in tax cuts or corporate welfare.
Another argument often given is that everybody is assessed on family income and it affects their tax credits. Guess what? Earned income affects the tax credits of OW and ODSP recipients too. The more they earn from employment or self employment, the less that family receives in tax credits, while at the same time, their total household income actually drops that more that they do work. If millionaires had to follow the same rules, they would have moved to Aruba a long time ago!
At the same time, poor people are told to accept charity. I haven't met anybody that has used a charity that was helped to escape poverty through that charity. The charities in question benefit from the poverty of its users. If nobody lived in poverty, the directors of these charities wouldn't have a job, nor would anybody have a reason to go crying to the papers about stocking their shelves with old, sub-nutritious processed foods that to be honest, few would even feed their pets. Charities are also uneven and do not follow any set of rules when determining eligibility for services. Privacy is compromised against its users all the time, while the agency just writes it off as a "mistake" (despite the fact this 'mistake' in question could have cost somebody their job or custody of their children). My advice to the poor -- stay away from charities, unless they allow for anonymity and do not use a means test.
What is needed for people living in poverty is to be included and be supported in this inclusion. Inclusion means different things to different people. For some, it means getting their food at the same places that others get their food. For others, it means being able to get to community events and meetings without having to beg or to depend on others for a ride. Niagara Region is bad for this sort of thing. It recently held a high profile conference on accessibility issues for people with disabilities at yet another location that one has to drive to in order to be included. If you do not drive, or do not own a car, then you are not included, despite the fact this conference was theoretically set up to discuss issues related to accessibility. The less people feel included, the less they feel they are valued as a member of the community.
This feeling of value of oneself, of one's own person, does not come from handouts of aged, rotting food from a food bank, a lice laden homeless shelter or some kind of afterthought given to people that don't drive in arranging rides to a meeting. I've experienced it in Niagara, where even when a ride has been arranged to get to a meeting, one has to find their way back -- usually about another $100 in taxi fares, because most areas of Niagara are not accessible to people with disabilities that do not have their own means of transportation. Niagara's only so called poverty group also meets in an inaccessible location, which again excludes many people that can provide input around that table. As a result, the voices of the non poor and service providers are the only ones that get heard, once again somebody else that gets paid to "help" the poor determining what poor people need.
We have to protest against downloading to the municipalities. Doing this will only encourage future cuts of greater depth with little or nothing that can be done to reverse them. Already the so called program that is going to replace the provincial Community Start Up and Maintenance Benefit in Niagara will only be available to people on OW. I get told to protest this to the region. Many people already have, but our region has its own priorities, which usually involve goods and services that benefit the non poor and the police services (e.g. a $100 million new police palace in Niagara Falls, for one). Our region talks about the GTA Expressway, as though this is going to encourage thousands of new jobs ... even if it does, not one of these jobs will be available to the poor, as most of the poor do not have vehicles. These jobs will likely be located along this new highway, where one would need a car to get to anyways. Why did I have to file a lawsuit against this region just so they can set up some type of starter regional transit between the three main cities (but nowhere else), in order to get them to move on it as opposed to continuing to talk for another forty years? Now, some regional councilors are attempting to sabotage this pilot project by pushing for its discontinuation. It is a safe bet that none of these dinosaurs would be willing to drive me between cities when I need to go outside of my own city to work on different files, etc. if they got their way. It is also a safe bet that not a single one of these regional councilors are without a personal vehicle. Chances are they each have three or four of them in their driveway.
Privilege breeds ignorance. People who live in privilege have no idea what others that live with less privilege or without privilege altogether actually live like, or what they need. Privileged people should not be in a position to make decisions about people without privilege, because of this willful blindness most of them tend to have. I notice that our regional councilors and city councilors cry poor and whine about seniors that cannot pay more property taxes, as a reason for them to cut essential services further. Yet these same seniors are the ones that miraculously can afford to upgrade and renovate their homes and will now, thanks to Dalton McGuinty, receive a tax credit for it too. The so called "poor seniors" or the truly poor seniors are already unable to live in their own homes and have had already moved to subsidized housing, the home of a child or sibling, or even to a nursing home, and very little of this has to do with property taxes ... it has to do with their income in general. With a net retirement income of approximately $1,300 a month for a single senior that no longer has coverage for dental, assistive devices, etc. cannot afford to live in their own home - period! While this is not the fault of the municipalities, I wish our local politicians would stop lying to the people about this, because most of the retirees that are able to live in their own homes have private pensions, thanks the generation before me that actually had job opportunities that meant something.
The province needs to UPLOAD, not to DOWNLOAD. Municipalities should not be in the business of delivering social services of any kind. Municipalities should be only responsible for predictable programs, services and infrastructure that do not ebb and flow wildly with the economy like social services do. Services like libraries, public transit, road maintenance, sewage and water treatment, bridges, community centers, certain recreational programs, police and fire departments, are examples of municipal services that should be run locally. Social assistance of any kind, including OW, ODSP, social housing, employment support services, health and addiction services, senior's support services and so forth, should be run and paid for provincially, even though local offices can operate programs at the local level. This way, expenses that fluctuate can be covered as required without having to raise property taxes, which by the way, impacts on the supply of affordable housing in any local area.
Most of the rules that govern OW and ODSP need to be eliminated if they actually expect people to work, or accept any kind of employment. Stop clawing back half the income of people when they take a job. Stop counting the income and assets of spouses and older children when they take a job or run a business. For those interested in starting a business, they should have no more rules to follow than anybody else that runs a business and in fact, they should be able to hire, fire, incorporate, invest, retire, do whatever they need to do with the business to help them earn an income. Because until the government is ready to do real social assistance reform, which is not going to cost a whole lot more than what it does now, the vast majority of OW and ODSP recipients are better off sitting at home.