Hot! Welfare still isn’t enough to live on

SudburyStar.com – news/editorial
August 15, 2011.    By Ruth Farquhar

There has been some talk lately of welfare in this province as we head into the election to be held in October.

We have been reminded of the cruelty that happened on our doorstep with the Kimberly Rogers case. I hope we never forget what happened when she died from being under house arrest while convicted of fraud. She was collecting welfare while getting OSAP. Heaven forbid someone should try and lift themselves out of poverty by going to school. The Liberals will try to paint Progressive Conservative Tim Hudak as another Mike Harris because he is suggesting bringing back the lifetime ban for anyone convicted of welfare fraud.

But will that generate any kind of real debate about welfare and its draconian rules and unlivable rates? Of course not. No politician wants to talk about the reality of people living in poverty in this province.

We are living in a scary time right now where well-paying jobs are scarce and it seems like we are heading into another global recession.

People who have good jobs and investments like to think they will never have to rely on the system, but in reality, all it takes are a few twists of fate to be in a situation where welfare could be your only option.

For example, you lose your job, for some reason, like many in Ontario you are unable to collect Employment Insurance and after your run through what savings you have, what do you do? Unable to find a job, you realize to survive you have to go on welfare.

What if, all of a sudden, you are faced with a catastrophic illness and are unable to work, your benefits run out and your only option is Ontario disability and only if you qualify. If you don’t qualify your only other option is welfare.

So, if you are single and on welfare, you would be expected to survive on $592 a month. It doesn’t matter if you have rent that is $600 or more a month, all you get is $592. Would you be able to survive on that? If you are single with one child, the rate on welfare is $1,005. We always hear politicians talk of child poverty, well that’s it. Child poverty doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Just how do you have enough money to put adequate food on the table or pay the hydro bill? But it’s easier to talk of children being poor then adults who may need help.

The fears of many who lived through the Mike Harris cuts to welfare of 21% are valid, when they think of his former cabinet minister, Tim Hudak, possibly winning the election. When Harris made those cuts, welfare for a single person sat at $663 a month.

According to John Stapleton, a policy analyst and former senior civil servant, “if governments had pegged rates to inflation, the welfare rate today would be $932 a month.” For all of Premier Dalton McGuinty’s talk when he was campaigning in two elections about raising the rates and getting rid of poverty in this province, his government has only managed to raise the rates by 3% or 4% over the years. As I said the rate is now at $592 and less then it was in 1993.

In November 2010, McGuinty appointed a commission to do an extensive review of social assistance in this province. I had hope, at first, when I heard who would be the two members of this commission: former NDP cabinet minister and head of United Way in Toronto, Frances Lankin, and former head of Statistics Canada, Munir Sheikh. They have been going all over the province listening to the stakeholders, including those on assistance, talk of their experiences with the system.

But what has stood out for me about this commission is the final report will not be released until July 2012, long after the provincial election. Even if the Liberals win this election, which is up in the air at this point, would I expect them to act on any recommendations? Oh, they might do some things that don’t cost a huge amount of money, but fundamental changes? Actually, raising the rates so people can eat and pay rent at the same time? I’m not sure even the NDP would do that.

The reality is that many in this province live paycheque to paycheque and carry huge credit card debt. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that any type of blip in the economy could throw many into poverty.

It’s time governments started seriously discussing a guaranteed annual income.

Next week, I’ll look at who has been the biggest supporter of this and what it would mean for Canadians.

Ruth Farquhar is freelance writer based on Manitoulin Island.

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