Blunt message about welfare

Posted on December 19, 2008 in Governance Debates, Inclusion Debates, Social Security Debates – Opinion – Blunt message about welfare
December 19, 2008. Carol Goar

They don’t go in for euphemisms at the National Welfare Council, a panel of 16 citizens appointed by the government to speak for poor Canadians.

They use the term “poverty line,” despite attempts by federal statisticians to substitute anodyne phrases such as “low income measure.”

They use the word “welfare,” despite attempts by provincial bureaucrats to replace it with gentler phrases such as “social assistance” or “income support.”

Their message is blunt. Canada strips welfare recipients of so much – their pride, their privacy, their savings, their ability to provide basic necessities for their children – that many will never escape poverty.

“There is much debate about giving people `too much’ because it might discourage them from employment,” the council says in its annual report, released last week. “But have we seriously examined the cost of providing too little, so that the possibility of being hired, or being productive in any larger sense, moves rapidly out of reach?”

The council, created in 1969, has been a burr under Ottawa’s saddle for most of its existence. This year’s roundup of statistics and commentary is particularly telling.

It shows how little progress poor families have made, despite years of promises to fix welfare and lift children out of poverty. It shows how badly snarled Canada’s threadbare safety nets have become. It shows that the country’s richest provinces (Alberta and Ontario) are the stingiest.

The central thrust of the report – a point the council made to Brian Mulroney seven times; Jean Chrétien 10 times; Paul Martin once and Stephen Harper once before – is that welfare, Canada’s safety net of last resort, doesn’t provide a basic subsistence income. This will not come as a surprise to Toronto Star readers.

But some of the other revelations in the 157-page report might.

On the positive side, single parents with preschool children in two provinces – Newfoundland and Quebec – have almost crossed the poverty line. According to the council, they now have “a reasonable chance in life.”

Hamilton also attracts favourable attention. Unlike any other city in Ontario, it does not claw back the National Child Benefit from welfare recipients. It dips into municipal coffers to make up the portion of the federal cheque payment that Queen’s Park deducts.

Most of the council’s remaining findings are depressing, but informative.

Despite a series of highly touted reforms, welfare incomes in Ontario are now at their lowest point in more than 20 years. Not only has the Liberal government failed to improve life for the province’s poorest citizens, it hasn’t even restored their standard of living to where it stood 13 years ago, when former premier Mike Harris slashed benefits and brought in workfare.

With Ottawa and the provinces constantly hatching add-ons and new incentives, Canada’s welfare system has become incomprehensible to people who use it and taxpayers who finance it. Take, for example, a single mother supporting a preschool child in Ontario. She is eligible for three different federal child benefits (the Canada Child Tax Benefit and the National Child Benefit Supplement and the universal Child Care Benefit) and two provincial programs (the Ontario Child Benefit and welfare). Accountability is lost in the muddle.

Even when petroleum royalties were pouring into its treasury, the Alberta government made no attempt to share its wealth with those in need. Its tight-fistedness was particularly striking in one category. Last year, a person considered incapable of working because of a disability was eligible for a maximum annual payment of $8,408. (By comparison, Ontario provided $12,382 and Yukon provided $15,666.)

There is much the citizens’ panel does not know: Do women stay in abusive relationships because welfare is so mingy and demeaning? Do people’s fortunes improve when they leave welfare? Do Canadians care? All it could do was highlight these questions.

As the economy contracts, the welfare council’s vigilance will be vital.

It can’t change government policy. But it can – and will – keep tearing down the comforting facades that policy-makers erect.

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