There is no comfort when a stubborn recession hangs through the clouds, as I walk about this region. As I walk about this city, the familiar faces straggle about the street corners, the Tim Horton's and the bank machines. On average, I am asked for change or for a couple of bucks three or four times each time I do walk this walk. These walks are becoming more dreary lately. While our city is admittedly trying to spruce up the downtown, one cannot help but notice the developing contrasts, potential for gentrification of housing developments, even in the downtown, which has already been identified as one of the many "priority" neighbourhoods in the Niagara Region.
My walk to my office as I start out each morning reflects more of the same old, same old ... and less of the hopeful prospects our politicians always want to get us to see. It is not that the presence of the 1% in this region goes without being noticed. I walk by places like Critelli's Furniture, which is located on the same strip of land and asphalt that includes many of our homeless and destitute and persons soliciting pocket change. Critelli's sells good quality furniture for thousands of dollars apiece. I note the quality is good, but who can pay $3,000 - $4,000 for one chair, $750 for a drink table to set beside a recliner or $2,000 for a mirror? Even many of my colleagues can't put out that much money at a shot for that kind of purchase! For most, even one of these items cost more than they earn in a month! In my mind, I ask who among the 1% would dare walk downtown to visit a place like this to buy this kind of furniture, while just outside their windows, the problems and miscreants of our society await. Across from Critelli's, there are two Japanese restaurants side by side, literally in direct competition with one another. I have friends that are laying bets wondering if they are both owned by the same company. We also flip coins to see which one will outlast the other, which seems to be a major sport in the downtown area these days. Betting any business will last beyond the year is risky.
The downtown corner where Tim Horton's is almost always occupied by people standing around smoking cigarettes and chattering, while across the street, a private college lets its students out at noon and at four thirty each day like clockwork. I wonder mildly how many of those students going to that career college will find a job in their field after they graduate. Maybe the concern these days is putting bums in seats, and not so much caring about how people will move on from there. How come I feel that we should care? Life in the downtown is rather predictable. I can almost tell what is going to happen before I even get there. Once I am off the bus and start walking toward my office, I pass the building where the Landlord and Tenant Board holds its hearings, and dozens of people are evicted every time this takes place. I have spent many mornings and afternoons in those hearing rooms, trying to bring reality to the minds of the adjudicators, trying to arrange deals for people that may be able to get a good start on paying their rent on time for now on, or enforcing orders for those that won't.
With all of my cognitive deficits imposed on me from various health issues, I sometimes have trouble reading faces, but I do know names. Everybody represents a phase of my life, sometimes I yearn to return to, but cannot as everything I am involved with is just a phase. I was once a big part of Occupy Niagara, which has sort of fizzled out. I was involved in various environmental movements, meetings around transit issues, and various workshops on climate change, as well as recent gatherings about the social assistance reform. In the past, I also participated in economic development activities and advocated for the small businesses in the area, as I don't see too many of them faring much better than those I witness begging for coins. I even had a hand in organizing a demonstration or two, which I might try to do once again if our provincial government insists on going the way of downloading administration of disability allowances to the region (which would be an unmitigated disaster in many ways). People are silently suffering and crying out for change, though they can no longer mouth the words, as our voice has been squashed by the powers that be, imposing fear and anxiety as opposed to assurances and hope for a bright future ahead of us.
Brighter Prospects, the oxymoronic name for the recently released report on social assistance reform, tries to paint its recommendations as betterment for the masses, while I can't see this after reading the fine print. I am trained to read the fine print and paid to do so by many of my clients - individuals and businesses alike, and being in the profession I am in, I don't see "brighter prospects" for anybody in this report. I am asked almost daily and sometimes multiple times each day what is going to happen to "us", and by "us" the asker is referring to people who are on the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP). These are people who I successfully appealed their benefits claim, who I represented at the provincial offences court, or even on a charge of assault or trespassing in the Ontario Court of Justice. They see me as part of "us" because I speak for those that cannot speak for themselves, or are afraid to. I also speak for small and medium sized business and try to believe that hard work will get "us" somewhere as well, although I sometimes begin to doubt that as well. I see us all as both sides of the same coin, all of us affected by the economy, the current endless recession and the increasing plight of bad attitudes all over.
Our government is almost positioning this report as the panacea for the misery all around us, when indeed it feeds it and ignores the travesty of legislated poverty, the globalization of labour and the balkanization of all of our voices alike. The report was not written with poverty reduction in mind, but instead was written to appease those that want to see the deficit trimmed, as if the poor were recently treated to some big party of massive spending and now we need to retreat. The Commission that produced Brighter Prospects did not get the memo that the poor are not responsible for this deficit, nor do they care. All they want is a home, a job and a friend, which Brighter Prospects offers none of this. Of course, it is not a problem to make cuts, when you are not the one that is affected, or not the one that gets to see the consequences of them. I don't think "Brighter Prospects" is going to make my daily trek to the office and around to the coffee shop any more pleasant; in fact, I will see exactly what I know is going to happen to "us" as the people around me are currently asking - I can only see things get worse.
Brighter Prospects is about putting people with disabilities back on welfare in some misguided attempt to erase the stigma against people on Ontario Works, which many of my detractors like to bash and punish simply for having bad luck and not accepting their just desserts while they fell. Adding a whole new group of people to this "undeserving" bunch is not going to make the whole bunch look to be less criminal to the ignorant populace, but is simply going to add people with disabilities to this very misunderstood category of people, who will only become further legislated into poverty. There is not one recommendation in Brighter Prospects that frees people from this legislative trap. It is not going to put more people into jobs, because evidence shows that time and time again, when people are forced to look for and accept jobs that don't exist, they are not likely to leave Ontario Works or any other program. When other media reports point out the growing number of young people, older people and others who have no disabilities or minimal barriers, or even have a great education, who are not getting hired, who in their right mind believes that employers will suddenly wake up and hire people off the social assistance rolls?
I recall discussions with many of the employers I have been retained by in my legal office, as well as those I have consulted with while I was part of the Employment Standards Development Committee, as part of the implementation of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act. After they got over the fact that I do not have three heads and get around to finally asking what the AODA actually is, they tell me they simply will not hire anybody who has been on assistance, yet at the same time some have told me that they should just "get a job". I often wondered if this employer in front of me is not going to hire anybody like this, who will? I guess this is going to take a lot of time to change people's minds. I am quite aware of the struggle of the small business owners in my region. They need people who will help them fulfill their business goals and who are reliable. I concur. I take issue and frequently point out boarded up storefronts along the downtown streets, or large offices that have moved out of the downtown region, often to locales that are difficult to reach by transit. It is clear that some employers know who they want working for them, and it is not "us" as my friends refer to themselves. I then turn to the government to ask them how they are going to force employers to take on members of the OW and ODSP community and give them lasting jobs to help them get off the system. I know forcing them is not the answer, but ...
... another call for consultations takes place and we are all back in Toronto to communicate with one another, sector to sector, to answer these kinds of questions. I am at these meetings, where many large employers, business associations, employment service providers, municipal managers, as well as people like me, are set up in round tables to talk to one another about what the answers should be. I speak for the small businesses that can't possibly be there who need support, who need to know what they have to do and not have it cost them a whole lot. I am there for those with disabilities that have the skills and want to work, to explain how to close that disconnect which seems to be in the wind whenever we go to these roundtables. The whole issue of putting people to work seems to be the non sequiter, but government policy types want to know the HOW. I always want to explore the reasons WHY first, then the IF, and then the HOW, for those for whom it can work, but we cannot assume that no matter how well meaning we all are (and I have no doubts that all of us around those tables is well meaning), that more than two percent of people will ever work themselves off ODSP, particularly with the rules they currently have and the government refuses to change.
Brighter Prospects has made a big deal about letting "social assistance recipients" keep an extra $200 a month before their working income gets clawed back at a rate that already far exceeds the average taxation level of even the wealthiest millionaires. If our government suddenly announced that it will tax millionaires at the rate of eighty five percent of all income they receive, chances are they will balk and try to move to other locales that will not tax them so heavily for their "efforts". So, why is it any different for poor people? We are no more motivated to work when our income gets cut to the bone than anybody else, so using this strategy over and over again and expecting different results is insane.
I worry a lot about this region. I don't see a lot of opportunities coming in for "us", as my friends refer to the group of people with traditional difficulties fitting in. It will still be a recession for a long, long time for them, even if the economy turns around in Ontario and even Niagara is booming again. While Niagara booming will be great for my small businesses, I still want the connect that is needed to make it work for those that haven't yet experienced the possibility of prosperity. People with disabilities are promised things will be better when the economy turns around and when it does, nothing ever changes. When the economy flounders, they are told they have to sacrifice even more to help pay off a debt they had no part of. If the authors and promoters of Brighter Prospects really want to make things different, they should join me someday, as I get off the bus and walk my way to my office and join me as I meet with my people, and speak to others over the telephone. They should walk with me as I meet with too many people who month over month seem to get their cheques put on hold by the region's OW office, the same office that wants to take over ODSP cases so the same abuse can be done to this group as well.
Once again I ask, Brighter Prospects for whom?