Punished for working too diligently

TheStar.com – Opinions – Punished for working too diligently
Published On Wed Dec 16 2009.   By Carol Goar Editorial Board

If you’re one of the people who thinks welfare recipients should get out and work, Linda Chamberlain agrees with you.

She loves her job. Her health has improved since she was hired by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health three years ago. She’s on fewer medications for her schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. She seldom uses food banks. She takes home her paycheque proudly.

There’s one problem. The more she works, the harder it gets to pay her bills.

“I might have to quit,” she says. “I’ve already gone back to two days a week (from five). I’ll probably have reduce it to 1 1/2 days.”

Chamberlain owes the government of Ontario $2,400 because she earned more than welfare bureaucrats estimated she would.

She noticed the first “overpayment” on her benefit statement in early autumn. At that time, it was $500. Her caseworker told her not to worry about it.

The next month, it had grown to $1,000. Again, her caseworker assured her there was no cause for concern.

Now it’s reached $2,400 and the Ministry of Community and Social Services has informed Chamberlain her monthly assistance will be reduced by $50 a month until she’s paid it off.

“I thought I’d finally made it. It felt so wonderful. But working has put me in the hole. Now I’m fighting to hang onto my apartment. If I lose it, I’ll never get another one.”
How could this happen?

Chamberlain didn’t cheat, lie or withhold information. She was ensnared by rules that penalize welfare recipients for being more diligent, less predictable or luckier than the systems allows.

In her case, the government couldn’t – or didn’t – adjust her monthly benefit to reflect her employment income. The rules required that her assistance be cut by 50 cents for every dollar she earned. But her computer file showed she was working 1 1/2 days a week, when she was actually up to five days most weeks. She spotted the discrepancy, but couldn’t get it corrected.

Meanwhile, her non-profit housing provider was raising her rent as fast as her income increased. She now pays the market rate for her apartment in a supportive housing complex.
“I don’t see a way out. I’m just sinking in the quicksand,” she says.

Any deviation from past trends will land a welfare recipient in a similar predicament. A long-awaited tax refund, child support arrears or back pay from a previous job will result in an “overpayment” on his or her account.

But punishing people for working too hard stands in a class of its own.

The Ontario government exhorts welfare recipients – even those with disabilities – to get a job and supplement the meagre financial assistance it provides. Then, when they do, it takes months, sometimes years, to adjust their benefits to their income, saddling them with huge “overpayments” that must be reimbursed.

Premier Dalton McGuinty is aware of the problem. “Unwittingly, we have developed a policy that stomps you into the ground,” he told Ontarians who rely on social assistance last spring.

Welfare recipients took that as a signal the government would soon launch its long-promised review of the province’s 800 welfare rules. But nothing happened.

Finally, two weeks ago, Social Services Minister Madeleine Meilleur appointed an advisory committee of nine community activists to help the government structure and organize the review. There is still no starting date.

Two things are certain: This lame effort won’t help Chamberlain and it won’t stop embittered taxpayers from labelling people like her lazy parasites.

Chamberlain’s work ethic remains strong. But her hopes of earning her way out of poverty have been snuffed out.

< http://www.thestar.com/comment/article/739279 >

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