Long years of poor bashing finally brought to an end

TheStar.com – Opinion – Long years of poor bashing finally brought to an end: Deb Matthews sought out information from those with direct experience of poverty
December 08, 2008. Pat Capponi

What may get lost in the back and forth over whether the provincial Liberals have gone too far or not far enough in their poverty reduction strategy is that it marks the end of a particularly shameful period in Ontario, one in which those living in poverty had to endure not only deep cuts to already barely adequate incomes but also found themselves branded as social pariahs, lazy and resistant to work, revelling in their abuse of the system.

Beginning in 1995, the government of the day succeeded in appealing to the worst instincts of Ontarians, ensuring that the shunning and punishing of the poor, the vulnerable, the lost would be seen as acceptable measures to the general public.

That approach resonated, welfare fraud stories appeared in national papers and were used to justify continuing harshness toward those who were barely able to keep body and soul together.

I had numerous conversations back then with those who bore the brunt of these attacks, some in small towns around the province, some here in Toronto. I remember the pain in people’s voices, the degradation they felt: the single mother who told me that she experienced accusatory glares from other passengers when she rode the streetcar with her children. She was sure they knew she was a welfare mom and she was sure they hated her for that. Or the woman living in a community up north who never went out during the day because her neighbours would see her and know she wasn’t working, and she was afraid their attitudes toward her would change. I remember the first cheques after the cuts came into effect, how shocked the recipients were at how much was taken from them, how for some it meant giving up their homes, for others giving up meals.

Those mean-spirited and wrong-headed policies and tactics kept those living in poverty quiet for more than a decade, too concerned with basic survival, made too ashamed to protest, their advocates largely silent for fear that they too would experience retaliatory funding cuts for speaking out.

The rebranded Ontario Works became less about supporting individuals in hard times and more about rigid and intrusive policing, as did the Ontario Disability Support Program. Rules were put on a significantly higher plane than individuals in need, and workers were left with no discretion when it came to cutting people off. The results of these get-tough initiatives are all around us: on our streets, in our parks, in crowded church basements and in beleaguered food banks. Our social fabric seemed to be unravelling as more and more the homeless and the destitute washed up in neighbourhoods and were reviled for their very presence.

The individuality, the basic humanity of the men and women who lost their footing during this period remained unseen, their skills and talents and abilities untapped as their physical and mental health declined. Ontario didn’t seem to care that people with major illnesses such as AIDS, diabetes and MS were sleeping on the street.

So what does it mean that the Ontario government is talking about poverty reduction and about the retooling of Ontario Works and ODSP? Does it put food into the mouths of the hungry today? Or house the homeless? No. But it does do something of equal magnitude: it ends more than a decade of poor bashing, of deliberate and callous targeting of those living in poverty.

And that’s not all. Children and Youth Minister Deb Matthews said at the beginning of her consultations that she was less interested in hearing from agencies than she was in hearing from those with direct experience of poverty. Imagine that: an Ontario cabinet minister wanting to hear from the poor instead of simply looking for a way to score cheap points by excoriating them.

What she heard over and over was how Ontario Works and ODSP were keeping people in poverty, how they were punishing initiative, how the arbitrary and sometimes bizarre application of rules ensured that no one made it out alive. She listened respectfully, and learned. And the more she listened, the more those living in poverty spoke out, realizing perhaps that a new era was at hand, one that promised change, one that treated people with respect and empathy.

Inviting those who’ve endured the policies of the Harris years to be part of the retooling of Ontario Works and ODSP is huge. Understanding and acting on the knowledge of how much those living in poverty want to improve their lives for themselves and for their children, want educational and vocational training, want opportunity, want a way out of the desperate and degrading lives they’ve been living is also huge.

The premier could have shelved any talk of poverty reduction in the face of a rapidly deteriorating economy across the globe. He did not. He understands that poverty costs, not just the individual, but the community and the province, in abilities not tapped, in ideas not implemented, in children deprived of a decent nutritional start in life. That soaring health budgets are directly impacted by chronic illnesses that thrive in poor communities, though interventions come too late to make a real difference for too many. Poverty kills.

We can’t afford to rest on our laurels, however. We must ensure that Ontario Works and ODSP are brought to levels of adequacy so that people can live in dignity, and we must ensure that those living in poverty are part of any stimulus package that is announced. The poor would love to be part of working in their communities, to be upgrading and repairing social housing and to be part of building new homes all across this province.

It’s a new day in Ontario. A day that brings the first glimmer of hope into lives that have been too long deprived of it.

Pat Capponi is a facilitator for Voices From the Street, a program that teaches advocacy and leadership to those with histories of homelessness and poverty.

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