Hardship of welfare getting harder

Posted on December 10, 2008 in Child & Family Debates, Governance Debates, Inclusion Debates, Social Security Debates

TheStar.com – Canada – Hardship of welfare getting harder
December 10, 2008. Laurie Monsebraaten, Social Justice Reporter

Welfare incomes in Canada are increasingly inadequate to meet basic needs, according to a report to be released today in Toronto, with Ontario seeing the harshest loss over the past two decades.

In 2007 dollar terms in Ontario, between 1992 and 2007, a lone parent’s welfare declined by almost $5,500, or 25 per cent, from $21,931. A couple with two children saw a loss of almost $8,150 (or 28 per cent, from $29,207), says the report.

“When we do not grant even the basics needed for survival, how then can we honestly criticize the recipients of such assistance for lack of effort or decry behaviours that offer relief from such a miserable existence?” says the report by the National Council of Welfare.

Payouts for most of Canada’s 1.7 million adults and children on welfare have dropped dramatically over the past 20 years and fall well below the poverty line, says the report, which looked at provincial and federal assistance for those on welfare from 1986 to 2007.

Toronto single mom Kamela Miller knows too well the hardships of welfare and how difficult it is to break out of the cycle.

All but $23 of Miller’s $922 monthly welfare cheque goes towards rent for herself and her 2-year-old son, Kami.

“We live on his child benefits,” says Miller, 20, referring to about $430 a month she gets in federal and provincial child benefits for Kami. “It’s pretty hard. There are no extras. You learn to make every penny count.”

Although her son’s father pays child support, welfare takes it all, a rule Miller doesn’t understand and one of many the council’s report criticizes for condemning people on welfare to lives of poverty.

The report shows the biggest loss in welfare incomes was in Ontario in 1995 under the Mike Harris Conservative government when welfare for able-bodied people was cut by 21.6 per cent and frozen for everyone for the next nine years.

While rates increased slightly under Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals since 2004, they have never reached pre-1995 levels, forcing Ontario’s 675,000 people on welfare and disability support to live far below the poverty line.

For most groups across the country, welfare incomes peaked years ago and have eroded due to provincial cuts, rate freezes and increases that have not kept up with inflation, the report says.

The report suggests people on welfare should be able to retain assets, keep a greater share of employment income and pursue longer-term training and higher education.

This is how Miller hopes to beat the odds. With the help of the Women Moving Forward program, Miller plans to start university next fall and become a registered nurse.

Some provinces are leading the way, says the report.

Quebec and Newfoundland, where provincial poverty-fighting plans have boosted welfare incomes for a single parent with a pre-schooler to the poverty level and just above, provide glimmers of hope, says the report.

Newfoundland, for example, has indexed welfare to inflation and Quebec has generous provincial child benefits, including $7-per-day child care.

Last week, the Ontario government released its long-awaited $1.4 billion poverty reduction strategy, called Breaking the Cycle, that aims to cut child poverty by 25 per cent in five years.

In addition to $300 million in new spending, most of which will boost the recently introduced Ontario Child Benefit to $1,310 by 2012, the plan calls for a comprehensive review of Ontario’s welfare system.

Minister of Children and Youth Deb Matthews said it’s also important to look at how provinces are helping people move from welfare into work.

“Rates are an important part of the story, but if you are looking at social assistance reform, you really have to look at how the system facilitates that transition,” she said last night. “And that’s what we are focusing on.”

Advocates plan to hold her feet to the fire.

“People are living in abject poverty and they aren’t being given any supports to get out,” said Jennefer Laidley of the Income Security Advocacy Centre. “If this government is committed to reducing poverty in this province it needs to make welfare adequate to survive.”

The council report uses several measures of poverty, including StatsCan’s Low Income Cut-Off (LICO), before and after taxes; the Market Basket Measure (an estimate of the average cost of basic necessities); and average and median incomes, before and after taxes.

It looks at provincial welfare and federal benefits for four groups – singles, a lone parent with a 2-year-old, a two-parent family with two kids, and a disabled person. Of the four groups, single people fared the worst in every province and by all measures, the report found.

The welfare income of a single person in Ontario was $7,204 last year, about 60 per cent below the after-tax LICO, which was $17,954 in a large city that year.

A single mother with one child in the province lived on $16,439, about 25 per cent below the $21,851 poverty line in 2007.

A spokesperson for Human Resources Minister Diane Finley said the government is “already making significant investments in families and children” and has committed to improve the Universal Child Care benefit, help families caring for the disabled and extend housing and homelessness programs.

“We look forward to delivering the budget on January 27th,” Julie Vaux, a spokesperson for Finley, said in an email.

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