Poor grow tired of waiting for premier

TheStar.com – Opinion – Poor grow tired of waiting for premier
June 29, 2009.   Carol Goar

Judging from his words, Premier Dalton McGuinty understands the problem.

“Unwittingly, we have developed a policy that stomps you into the ground,” he acknowledged this spring to Ontarians who rely on social assistance.

Judging from his actions, he is in no hurry to fix it.

Six months have passed since the government pledged a review of the province’s punitive welfare system. It still hasn’t begun. Nor is there any indication when it will start, who will conduct it, how comprehensive it will be, or whether low-income Ontarians will have an opportunity to express their views.

Unwilling to wait any longer, social activists organized their own public forum last week to talk about the kind of review they want.

It was an uncomfortable session. The participants had to work through their own tensions before confronting the policy issues.

The welfare recipients in the room – outnumbered approximately 10 to 1 by representatives of social agencies, legal aid clinics, homeless shelters and charities – accused their service providers of stealing their voices. “One of our biggest difficulties is getting the people who run the social service agencies and live middle-class lives to be our allies,” said Khludra Sha. “They’re the first people silencing us.”

They lashed out at the public servants who claim to be on their side. “My caseworker (who belongs to CUPE 79, the union representing Toronto’s inside workers) gets $33 an hour,” said Theresa Shrader. “Imagine picketing your office for 18 days of paid sick benefits. And you want to restructure Ontario Works? Come on, please.”

They challenged the expertise of the academics, consultants and policy advocates whose knowledge of the welfare system is based on observations, statistics and theories. “Lived experience must be pre-eminent,” said John Ray. “We need the direct involvement of the people who know how the system operates.”

To the organizers’ credit, they welcomed these critical comments. They dealt with them openly and respectfully. And by the end of the three-hour meeting, the 75 or so participants did agree on five key messages to send to McGuinty:

* Get moving. If the social assistance review doesn’t start soon, there won’t be time to make changes before the government’s mandate expires (2011). That means the victims of this recession risk being trapped in lifelong poverty.
* Don’t just tinker. Important as it is to get rid of the mean-spirited rules that force welfare recipients to exhaust their savings, liquidate their assets and live in abject poverty, what is really needed is a social assistance system that helps users build a better life.
* End the secrecy. The longer the government keeps welfare recipients in the dark about its review, the more distrustful they’ll become. What is needed is a genuine dialogue, not a top-down process with a predetermined outcome.
* Listen to people living in poverty. The 765,000 Ontarians who rely on the social assistance system know how it stifles initiative and creates barriers to self-sufficiency. They have ideas about how to fix it.
* Be bold. If Ontario’s poverty reduction strategy is to make a lasting difference, it must do more than target a few dollars to people in chronic need. It must create a more resilient and equitable society.

There were representatives of McGuinty’s government at the forum. They assured participants the government was eager to get on with the review, but offered no details or timetable.

Until they get better answers than that, low-income Ontarians will keep pushing, keep highlighting what’s wrong with welfare and keep reminding McGuinty that fine words don’t change bad policies or lift the stigma of poverty.

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