Poor stuck in the middle of an ideological fight

WindsorStar.com – opinion/op-ed
January 10, 2011.   By Kate Heartfield, Ottawa Citizen

The long bureaucratic nightmare that is Ontario’s Special Diet Allowance for welfare recipients isn’t over yet, but there’s reason to hope.

The allowance is supposed to help people who receive social assistance and are coping with medical conditions that require them to buy more expensive food.

Just getting a sense of how the allowance works now, and what the problems with it are, requires reading several incredibly boring and confusing reports.

There’s a convoluted Ontario Human Rights Tribunal judgment. The provincial auditor weighed in last year. There’s a report from the Special Diets Expert Review Committee, which waxes on for 79 pages about such matters as the precise difference in cost per serving between gluten-free and non-gluten-free pasta.

All of that detail has been necessary to get the provincial government closer to a rational, fair system — but man oh man, this is one opaque area of public policy.

So imagine what it’s like to know that your ability to eat next week depends on this Byzantine system that seems to be constantly either changing or under threat of change. Imagine what it’s like to know that there are now new changes, and that every person who qualifies for the program now will have to reapply in 2011 — and that there might be further changes after that. “The changes to the special diet allowance have been disastrous from the beginning,” sighs Wendy Muckle, executive director of Ottawa Inner City Health.

The good news is that eventually, we might be able to have confidence that people who need extra money because of medical conditions are getting the amounts they really need. That won’t happen until at least June 2012, when Munir Sheikh — late of Statistics Canada — and Frances Lankin are supposed to complete their review of all social assistance programs in the province.

But to respond to the Human Rights Tribunal decision and the auditor’s concerns, the province had to act on the special-diet allowance before that review begins. It recently announced changes that will increase the amounts for certain conditions, and eliminate others from the eligibility list.

It will also require that recipients consent to the release of medical information to support their application, and will put tracking methods in place to make sure no one’s trying to manipulate the system.

Some anti-poverty advocates argue that all poor people get inadequate nutrition — in part because the social assistance envelopes are too small — and that therefore, every social-assistance recipient should apply for a special diet allowance. But when the government got wind of clinics at which these advocates helped people apply for the allowance, it was not amused.

Hence, the government’s obsession with making sure nobody gets a dime without a damn good reason.

Although it’s had some unfortunate effects, that obsession is justifiable. As Social Services Minister Madeleine Meilleur points out, many of the taxpayers who support this program earn fairly low incomes themselves and nobody gives them extra to make sure they’re getting the proper diets for their medical conditions.

“The message I want to send out is that those who do need the supplement should get it and those who don’t should not,” says Meilleur. She says the latest changes are not a cost-cutting exercise, but an accountability exercise. “What I’m doing is adding credibility to the program.”

Meilleur seems sincere when she says improving the system by making it less prone to fraud will reduce the stigma for legitimate recipients. I certainly hope that’s the case, because the overall impression given by the government’s focus on fraud so far is that it’s willing to fight the poor over every nickel.

“The majority of the people we take care of get only $10 a month,” says Muckle, citing amounts that applied before the most recent changes were announced. “That’s a lot of paperwork for $10 a month. The maximum now under the allowance is $250 a month but I don’t know anybody who’s getting that … We have one client who’s been struggling to get his allowance and he just got the $10 a month and it’s like he won the lottery.”

The “housing first” model of helping the chronically homeless is founded on the logic that it costs more to deal with someone over and over again in emergency rooms and police stations than it does to just buy them a place to live and provide intensive, tailored help for them.

The same logic suggests it’s a false economy to whittle away at the grocery budgets for poor people with health problems. Yes, the system should be set up in such a way that no one can get away with rampant fraud. But the government shouldn’t lose sight of the overall purpose of the program.

Maybe, once we get through this year and a half of social assistance review, the bugs in this program will be worked out once and for all, or it will be replaced, and the poor and sick will no longer be stuck in the middle of a tedious ideological fight between anti-poverty activists and the government.

Kate Heartfield writes for the Ottawa Citizen.

<http://www.windsorstar.com/opinion/op-ed/Poor+stuck+middle+ideological+fight/4084718/story.html  >

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