Hopes fade for humane welfare system in Ontario
TheStar.com - opinion/editorialopinion
Published On Sun Apr 22 2012. By Carol Goar, Editorial Board
Their last hope is Frances Lankin. And they’re no longer sure whether she’s a friend or a foe.
Two months from now Lankin and Munir Sheik, co-chairs of Ontario’s social assistance review will release their blueprint. Their aim is to turn the province’s threadbare, demeaning welfare system into a modern income security system.
Initially, the 880,000 people who depend on social assistance — which includes welfare and disability support — regarded Lankin, former president of the United Way of Greater Toronto, as their champion in the corridors of power. She knew they couldn’t live on the province’s meagre allowance. She knew they needed affordable housing and child care. She knew the system stripped them of their privacy and their dignity.
But in recent months, doubts have set in. The commission’s discussion paper in February was vague and unsettling. Last month’s provincial budgetwas ominous. And the rumours they’re hearing scare them.
Last week, three Torontonians who live on Ontario Disability Support (ODSP) met at a supportive housing agency to share their concerns. All have mental disorders. All agreed to use their real names regardless of the stigma or the possibility of reprisals.
“I used to think the goal (of the review) was poverty reduction,” said Youssef Camara. “Now I think it will produce the reverse. I truly believe people will be worse off a year from now.”
Camara has severe clinical depression. Until last month he was working for a non-profit agency. Then his contract expired. He is looking for a new job but it’s hard to find an employer who will take a risk on a worker whose illness could flare up anytime and last for months.
That unpredictability, he explained, is why people with psychiatric disorders worry about the commission’s suggestion that disability support recipients deemed capable of working should be required to look for employment.
Sandra Smith, who has schizophrenia, figures she could work two days a week. Her medication, Risperidone, saps her energy and has other side-effects (insomnia, muscle stiffness, irritability).
Michael Koo puts his limit at 20 hours. And they might not be weekly. His disease, bipolar disorder, is cyclical.
“If the government wants us to work, why doesn’t it hire us to work with mentally disabled clients? It’s already paying us,” he pointed out. (ODSP recipients get a monthly benefit of $1,064.)
Camara wants to know who will decide which ODSP recipients are capable of working. “We don’t need another layer of bureaucracy.”
Last month’s budget heightened their fears. It froze welfare rates and halved this year’s promised increase in the Ontario Child Benefit.
(Last Friday, Premier Dalton McGuinty, hoping to win the support of the New Democratic Party, proposed an amendment that would give disability support recipients a 1 per cent increase in November. With inflation running at 2.2 per cent, this would still mean a drop in their buying power.)
“Why does this government consider it progress to move a person from severe deprivation to working poverty?” Camara asked rhetorically. His answer: “The intent of everything they do is to shrink funding.”
“It’s not just us,” Smith stressed. “More and more families are falling into poverty. It’s scary.”
Now they’re hearing speculation that Lankin and Sheik will propose that Ontario Works (basic welfare: $599 a month) and Ontario Disability Support ($1,064) be collapsed into a single program. That alarms them. They need the extra money for medications, supportive housing and transportation to hospitals, clinics and doctors’ offices.
Oppressive and unfair as the current system is, they can’t afford to lose what they have. And they don’t trust Lankin — or anyone else — to keep them whole.
As the conversation ended, they tried to explain what it’s like to be poor and disabled in Ontario. “It’s like you’re always being judged and found guilty of some crime,” Koo said. Smith gave it a name: “the crime of being sick.”
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