Thursday, December 06, 2007

The treadmill of poverty

from The Toronto Star

System penalizes people who attempt to get ahead, study finds

Laurie Monsebraaten
Staff Reporter

Zuher Ismail just wants to get ahead.

The 23-year-old lives at home with his mother in social housing, and works while attending school part-time to earn a degree in business administration. He's not at home entirely by choice – he tried to make it on his own, because he didn't want to be a burden, but he couldn't make ends meet.

The catch is, by living at home, trying to work and go to school, both Ismail and his mother have been penalized. Some of the money earmarked for his schooling goes to cover his mother's subsidized rent, which has gone up by about $100, to $400 a month, due to his income and the fact that he's now living with her.

"That's just the way it is I guess," Ismail says. "I just want to complete my studies and get on with my life."

Escaping social assistance in Ontario is a vicious game of snakes and ladders where too often those struggling to get ahead end up further behind, says a new report on government social programs.

That's because federal and provincial policies aimed at helping the poor too often work at cross-purposes, punishing anyone who gets a job or goes to school to try to improve their circumstances, says the report by John Stapleton, who was a policy analyst in Ontario's social services ministry for 28 years.

"Life is tough for poor people – we know that. Why do we develop public policies that make it even tougher?" Stapleton asks.

The report, funded by the privately endowed Metcalfe Foundation, lists a litany of barriers to self-reliance. It starts with welfare, which deducts 50 cents for every dollar earned the moment a person on welfare gets a job. Other social supports such as public housing and subsidized child care are also often slashed as income increases, leaving those on welfare little incentive to move ahead.

"Working-age social assistance recipients in Ontario, especially those who are public housing residents, live with disincentives," the report says. "The more they earn, the more they lose benefits; when they tell the truth, they are penalized."

As a result, programs encourage non-reporting, discourage work and perpetuate abject poverty, it says. Stapleton, who hopes his report will help shape the McGuinty government's poverty-reduction strategy, says the situation is particularly perverse for children turning 18 in poor families.

He recounts Toronto Mayor David Miller's fury in 2005 when, after encouraging large companies to hire disadvantaged youth, parents told their sons and daughters to turn down job offers. The reason? Any income these youth earned would trigger automatic rent hikes in the families' subsidized housing and cuts to welfare cheques.

"These kids were caught in a tangle of social policies that made it worse for both themselves and their parents if they took advantage of opportunities such as Miller's initiative," says the report, entitled "Why is it so tough to get ahead? How our tangled social programs pathologize the transition to self-reliance."

Under provincial social assistance rules, when children turn 18 they are considered adults and expected to work. The same rule applies in public housing. Only if they are studying full-time can children over 18 remain in the family home without causing penalties. But if they move out, they often can't support themselves because it's difficult for disadvantaged youth to get jobs that pay living wages.

Ismail's story is all too common, says Stapleton, who spent the past year consulting widely with people in Toronto receiving basic welfare, called "Ontario Works," and ODSP, the province's disability support program.

His primary focus were first-generation immigrant adults on welfare and youth who have grown up in public housing.

Problems they encountered as they found work or enrolled in education and training included:

Cuts to income support such as Ontario Works, ODSP and the national child benefit.

Ineligibility for benefits such as prescription drugs and dental care.

Eviction notices or rent hikes for public housing.

Reduced eligibility for services such as subsidized child care.

Reduced eligibility for OSAP (student assistance).

Single mom Toby Rowe, 27, was determined to crawl out of poverty last winter by taking a part-time job at a fast-food restaurant to supplement her $939 welfare cheque. Her goal was to work in the afternoons while her children, then aged 4 and 6, were both in school. But the restaurant, which paid her $8 an hour, insisted she work weekends too, forcing Rowe to hire a babysitter, which cost $6 an hour.

"I did it for three months and had no more money in my pocket to show for it," Rowe says. "Welfare took 50 cents of every dollar I made and the babysitter took the rest. It actually cost me to work. "

Rowe, who has been completing high school one credit at a time while raising her children, hopes to complete her diploma and enrol in some form of post-secondary education or job training after her daughter starts Gr.ade 1 next year.

"I know I need more training because I'll never get ahead working (for) minimum wage. But it's hard."

Ultimately, Ontario's social safety net needs to be more focused on the person seeking help, rather than on so-called "service silos."

But in the short term, Ontario could ease the transition into self-reliance from social assistance by granting moratoriums – what Stapleton calls "time outs" – on public-housing rent hikes, welfare and child-benefit clawbacks, and cuts to child-care subsidies.

When it comes to disadvantaged youth turning 18, he calls for a grace period of up to four years for those in school so they can prepare themselves for adulthood without triggering financial hardship.

1 comment:

Ron Payne said...

This was sent to the Premier of Ontario Dalton McGuinty, the Minister of Community and Social Services Madeleine Meilleur, Hamilton Mayor Fred Eisenberger and Hamilton city councilor Bernie Morelli, via e-mail on Feb 24 08.

My question to you and to myself is how do they get away with the callous and unjust manner that workers approach their clients with, at Ontario Works, ODSP and even the Social Benefits Tribunal?

The answer is very simple. BECAUSE THEY CAN

For the record I would like to state, I have seen many improvements to the SBT since a change of it’s Chair and I expect to see many more. I can’t say the same for Ontario Works and ODSP.

The research shows when clients have contact with workers the response is not always the same. You could ask three different workers the same question and receive three different answers.

If the worker doesn't especially like you, they will simply ignore you. This means things like no return phone calls, ignoring verbal requests for benefits, requesting more than usual documents be brought in to prove eligibility and so on.

If the worker really doesn't like you, they will often do everything in their power to harass, intimidate and frustrate you into giving up and going away. This means things like ignoring written requests for benefits, telling you that the benefit doesn’t exist, denying benefits when you are entitled and no decision letters and so on.

If the worker does like you, they will give you any of the benefits that you ask for if you entitled. This is only if the worker is aware of the benefits requested. Here is an interesting problem. The vast majority of the workers are not aware of benefits that are available. This even includes some of the excellent workers. Another problem is that the fast majority of clients don’t even know what the benefits are.

****All clients must document, tape record and video record everything, every time when dealing with any OW or ODSP staff.****

The governments must, as a gesture of good will, give all Ontario Works and ODSP clients a written copy of the benefits that they say clients are entitled.

This would be a first concrete step taken to start the process in eliminating poverty.

Ontario Works Directive # 31.0 found at or the:

Ontario Disability Support Program Directives #s 9.1 to 9.19 Found at

The only real remedy to this problem is for clients to sue their respective governments. For Ontario Works it would be their local municipal government and the Province of Ontario and for ODSP it would be the Province of Ontario.

In the Ontario Works Act it states No personal liability

77.(1)No action or other proceeding in damages shall be instituted against the Ministry, the Director, a delivery agent, an officer or employee of any of them or anyone acting under their authority for any act done in good faith in the execution or intended execution of a duty or authority under this Act or for any alleged neglect or default in the execution in good faith of any duty or authority under this Act.

In the Ontario Disability Support Program it states No personal liability

58. (1) No action or other proceeding in damages shall be instituted against the Ministry, the Director or a delivery agent, an officer, employee of any of them or anyone acting under their authority for any act done in good faith in the execution or intended execution of a duty or authority under this Act or for any alleged neglect or default in the execution in good faith of any duty or authority under this Act. 1997, c. 25, Sched. B, s. 58 (1).

This means that a client could sue for damages if bad faith could be proven.

It is called bad faith; a person who intentionally tries to deceive or mislead another in order to gain some advantage.

It is called willful blindness or willful deceit.

The government must get rid of the discretionary powers it allows workers in the OW and OSSP, Act, Regulations and Directives.

You’re either entitled to benefits or your not. It is extremely simple but the government will not do it until it gets sued for Bad Faith.

It’s so simple; all the government has to do is to look at how the federal government implements its Employment Insurance application process, and they are saving millions.

To receive benefits you must go online to apply, with exceptions for some disabled clients. You fill out a simple template and the next thing you experience is a cheque in the mail. If the federal government trusts us why can’t you?

Ron Payne
Welfare Legal
Hamilton, Ontario.