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Archive for July, 2011

Social Assistance Review: Hamilton Consultation’s Prescription for Reform (July 4, 2011)

Liveable Benefits, Living Wage Jobs, Transparent Rules and Government Support

About 150 people participated in the community consultation session with Commissioners Frances Lankin and Munir Sheikh in Hamilton on Monday, July 4.

Participant contributions fell into several major theme areas.

 Adequate Benefits and Wages above Poverty Line

The need for a system such as an independent expert panel to determine social assistance rates based on evidence of the real cost of living in the community was repeated often through the session. Recipients also need access to emergency funds for things such as transportation, medication, and coverage of dental, optometry and other important health-related services.  Access to affordable housing in all areas of the city is also key to escaping poverty.

There should be an end to precarious employment and assurance of a living wage that enables workers to live above the poverty line. Those moving off of social assistance into the labour market should not be subject to income claw-backs and should be allowed a sustained income at the living wage level for a period of time before other social assistance benefits are suspended to ensure a stable and lasting transition.

 Employment Supports

There is a need for real job training, not sporadic short-term courses. Employment services should be matched with employers that provide real work experience. Job training must be related to actual existing jobs in the labour market.  The labour market, however, must ensure decent jobs which pay a living wage. Better use of technology to help more people with disabilities be successful in employment.

 Clear and Transparent Rules   

Both OW/ODSP caseworkers and recipients are frustrated by complex, punitive and nit-picking rules, which need to be simplified and made more transparent, flexible and responsive to individual needs and situations. Better staff training is needed to improve communication between workers and recipients and a role for experienced recipients should be considered to help new recipients navigate the system.  Eligibility barriers for new applicants should be reduced, such as low asset thresholds, which just make it harder to get out of poverty even if one gets off of assistance.

Future of Social Assistance

Many participants asked that a universal program be established such as the guaranteed annual income and that current income supports be better integrated. Income supports systems should meet community living needs for food, housing and health. The federal, provincial and municipal governments need to work together on this and also ensure universal healthcare coverage (dental, vision). Corporations should be contributing more through fair taxation.

It is important to overcome discrimination and stigmatization of social assistance recipients, which means presenting a unified position to the public on the need for and rightness of a social assistance system that is effective in meeting the needs of people not able to be in the labour market for whatever reason in the short- or long-term.

Government’s Role

Government must understand that minor tweaks will not work. There is a need for a focused uncomfortable discussion about what needs to be changed. Government has a role to play in communicating this in a way to the public that helps build and maintain support.

Poverty Free Ontario thanks Susan Muma of the 25 in 5 Hamilton Network for Poverty Reduction for providing notes for this report.

Social Assistance Review: Commissioners Asked to Take “Bold Action” in Niagara (July 5, 2011)

Commissioners Frances Lankin and Munir Sheikh were in Niagara Region on Tuesday, July 5 and met with representatives of community agencies, social assistance advocacy groups, a Regional Niagara Councilor and Regional Community Services Staff in the morning. They then had lunch with a small group of social assistance recipients for their input into the issue. In the afternoon they met with Regional OW caseworkers.

In the morning, the Commissioners were urged to take “bold action” in their reform proposals and to release an interim report before the provincial election to help bring poverty into a stronger public and political consciousness. The Commissioners resisted the notion indicating that they would “engage politicians but not make pronouncements.” The Commissioners expressed an interest in finding some kind of “broad consensus” around which they could “coalesce” to pass on to the government.

Community participants told of the economic hardships that people are experiencing in Niagara leaving many who had always worked now in desperate living conditions. They reported on the “cycle” of moving back and forth between the labour market and social assistance because of the low paying and precarious nature of the jobs that are available. Regional social services staff reported the heavy pressures under which they work with caseloads higher than the provincial average.

The need for more adequate benefit levels for people on social assistance was clearly stated, although the Commissioners expressed some concern about fairness to working poor people if social assistance recipients were seen to get benefits not available to them.  All of which only once again points to the importance of linking a more adequate and improved social assistance system to labour market policies and programs that ensure decent-paying jobs and good employment standards.

Although the Commissioners’ meeting with social assistance recipients was private, it was reported to be a very intense and emotional conversation, which the Commissioners indicated was very valuable to their purpose.

Thanks to Gracia Janes, Chair  of the Social Assistance Reform Network of Niagara for providing preliminary and very brief  notes for this report.  More detailed notes of the morning meeting were taken by Regional Niagara staff and will be available shortly.

This is What Poverty Felt Like

WELLAND – As we sat in a room in the MacBain Centre in Niagara Falls, a dramatic analogy of poverty played out around us. Marvyn Novick and Peter Clutterbuck from the Social Planning Network of Ontario spoke to us on behalf of Poverty Free Ontario, and a strange thing happened.

The lights, set up with environmental conservation in mind, were to go out at set intervals after detecting no movement in the room. This happened several times, and as a result the listeners of the presentation had to perform wild gesticulations so that the light would return.

Watching this frantic communication to the great motion sensor in the sky, left me with a profound feeling.

This is what poverty felt like. The lights of the world had gone out, and one is left frantically flailing their arms in the darkness hoping someone will notice.

The only problem with this analogy is that poverty isn’t something that just happens. It’s caused by you and I: those that can afford to pay our rising bills, including HST, without complaint, who can afford niceties that we don’t really need, who struggle to come up with one or two cans when it comes to the annual food drive.

In order to ensure our own comfort, we have deliberately put those in poverty in the dark. It saves energy, money, resources if we just pretend that they’re no longer in the room, and we shut out the lights.

We sing a hymn by Shirley Erena Murray in our church, entitled Touch the Earth Lightly. In it, we are reminded at the dramatic impact we have upon this planet.

We who endanger, who create hunger, agents of death for all creatures that live

Whenever we sing those lines, I’m left with an unmovable lump in my throat. The problem with poverty is not just a religious matter.

Athiests, agnostics, whatever flavour of religion satisfies your palate; each of us need to work together, if there is any hope of eliminating poverty. It doesn’t belong to any particular political party either. Poverty requires us to acknowledge the inherent worth of our neighbours. Especially the one you don’t get along with.

The presentation at the MacBain Centre laid the foundation for this discussion of poverty with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, issued by the UN shortly after the Second World War. It was written and adopted to ensure one group of people do not mistreat, subjugate, or demean another group.

Yet that is exactly what is happening between those that exist both above and below the poverty line. We use language that refers to laziness and the pulling of bootstraps. We assume addiction and abuse. We claim squandered cheques and too much help and they won’t help themselves. Any words that can be used to lessen our collective guilt, we employ it. It lets us off the hook.

We feel better about ourselves. We sleep soundly at night, and what little we do about poverty, if any, seems grandiose.

According to recent statistics, we have seen an increase from 11% to 13% of Ontarians existing in poverty, or in other terms, 1.7 million Ontarians are below the poverty line, 400,000 of whom are children. Myths of poverty aside, one-third of those 400,000 children actually come from families where parents had full-time work.

Gone are the beliefs that having a “good job” met all your needs. Gone is the belief that only the uneducated cash cheques from Ontario Works or ODSP. (In fact 80% of those below the poverty line graduated high school, and 40% have some post secondary education). Families are now required to have two incomes at a minimum, leaving many to split time between multiple places of employment, just to break even. When we hear poverty, it often comes with the more heartstring- pulling adjective of child poverty.

While it is admirable to seek to improve the lives of children in need, we cannot forget that there are still more than one million adults and seniors that face each and every day without the basic needs for life.

At Central United, as well as other locations around our city, meals are served, by local organizations and churches. The visible poor aren’t often in front of our eyes, like the larger centres of Toronto, or Ottawa, but Welland struggles just the same. While there are familiar faces that come each and every meal, a certain percent of the group is always new.

We’re never sure what led them to our table that month, as the pain of poverty prevents many from sharing the difficult journey they’ve endured. We only know that for one brief moment, judgment is checked at the door, people are fed, and hope is shared.

If you’re like me, you wonder what you can do at all when it comes to the great chasm of poverty. In that moment, please realize that doing something is better than doing nothing at all. Know that there is a provincial election and ensure each of the candidates offer their party’s plan on how to combat poverty. Contribute to a food bank more than once a year.

Get the figures on how much on average those in poverty have for food per month and try surviving (and then imagine what a $100 a month healthy food supplement might do to your diet). Speak to those at the Hope Centre or other institutions around Welland that work to fight not just the symptoms of poverty, but the root causes. And if you’re still unsure where to start, may these words strengthen your resolve.

They were written by Bishop Ken Untener of Saginaw and attributed to Bishop Oscar Romero who ministered to the people of El Salvador, and offered hope during hopeless times.

We plant the seeds that one day will grow.

We water seeds already planted,

knowing that they hold future promise.

We lay foundations that will need further development.

We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation

in realizing that. This enables us to do something,

and to do it very well.

Editorial by Rev. Chris Fickling in the Welland Tribune


Social Assistance Review: Report from the Field on London Consultation (June 29, 2011)

The Social Assistance Review Commissioners spent Tuesday, June 29 in London, Ontario.

A breakfast meeting with the commissioners and key sectoral leaders from the community was followed by two half-day facilitated “conversation cafes” with a tour of three agencies over the lunch – My Sisters Place, London Inter-Community Health Centre, and the Men’s Mission.

The conversation cafes were structured around the five issues plus a sixth table to surface “other issues.”

Invitations were sent out broadly in the community with specific asks to advocates to see if individuals with lived experience in OW/ODSP worlds would attend and participate.

Sixty people attended the morning session including about 5 individuals with lived experience.

In the afternoon, 115 people attended with perhaps a dozen or so people with lived experience.

The emerging local Inter-Faith Social Action Coalition had representatives at both sessions.

A number of OW caseworkers and front-line supervisors also participated.

A number of advocates took the Commissioners’ workbook and are going to work with their clients to complete and submit to the Commission.

A summary of the comments is being prepared and will be distributed to all participants and to the Commissioners and will also be made available to Poverty Free Ontario for posting on this web site.

Thanks to Ross Fair, Chairperson of the Child & Youth Network Ending Poverty Committee of London, for this initial report on the London consultation.

Social Assistance Review: Report from the Field on Windsor-Essex Consultation (June 28, 2011)

Social Assistance Review Commissioners Frances Lankin and Munir Sheikh held sessions with community agency stakeholders and people living on social assistance in Windsor-Essex on Tuesday, June 28, 2011.

A wide-ranging discussion in the multi-stakeholders sessions attempted to cover the major areas of interest covered in the Review’s Discussion Paper.

A less structured conversation was held with people with the lived experience of poverty, which touched on major concerns about what the system currently provides and how it is administered.

Discussion in the Multi-Stakeholders Sessions covered the following areas:

Issue 1-Reasonable Expectations and Necessary Supports to Employment

  • Easier access to services
    • Plans should be focused on the individual and be focused on their skill-sets
      • Individual focus would allow for increased support to the most vulnerable
      • Will ensure that an individual’s needs are related to the services they receive
  • Guidelines and expectations need to be more clear and concise
  • People need to be made more aware of what is available
  • The whole act needs to be re-written
  • The staff needs to be more engaged
  • There needs to be increased communication between employers regarding positive experiences they have had with workers
  • Add an English as a Second Language component
  • Transportation is a barrier to people finding and maintaining employment

Issue 2-Appropriate Benefit Structure

  • There needs to be more flexibility in rates
  • OW and ODSP rates should be equalized
  • Affordable benefits would be beneficial for the working poor
  • ODSP should be continued, without the need for renewal, if you have been declared medically unable to work (similar to WSIB)
  • More clarity is needed around the criteria that need to be met in order to be declared disabled.

Issue 3-Easier to Understand

  • It is difficult to understand the rules; teams should be created that are specialized in particular rules
  • More communication is needed around what people are eligible for
    • The system is difficult to navigate and people are unaware of where they need to go for the proper information
    • Individualized assessments would ensure that clients are receiving the proper supports
    • People need to be more aware of what benefits exist

Issue 4 Viable over the Long Term

  • Adequate income is needed and the system needs to allow people to reach their full potential
  • Ethno cultural data should be collected provided the purpose for its collection is made clear
  • Data should be clearly linked to poverty reduction
    • Does the data reflect the information needed to provide services?
    • Data on client barriers should be collected
    • If people had more adequate case management, the system was improved and OW rates were increased, it is possible that ODSP caseloads would decrease
    • Needs to be more client based
      • Services received should reflect client needs
      • The data that is collected should help the worker to tailor the services received to the client
      • Communication is needed around who clients are supposed to approach for help
      • Employers need to be more involved and educated
      • Process should be simplified for employers

Issue 5-An Integrated Ontario Position on Income Security

  • Dissemination of information needs to be improved
    • Information packages would help to distribute information more effectively
    • Information should also be updated regularly
    • There should be an integration of income supports that is monitored through the tax filing system in order to ensure that people are getting the supports they are eligible for
    • There should be greater interaction between all levels of government in order to create thriving communities through funding
    • Mobile supports are needed so case managers are able to see their clients as many cannot make it to appointments because of transportation barriers
    • Explanations of how support is calculated should be more clear
      • Individual case workers would be able to help with this

Additional Comments

  • The homeless population and the youth population need to be included in the consultation
  • Youth are included in the adult system but they need more specified supports

Discussion in the Session for People with Lived Experience of Poverty covered the following areas:

  • Social assistance rates are inadequate (remain well below the LICO)
  • More consistency is needed regarding services
  • More accountability is needed to ensure people are receiving services
  • There should be mediation between the people who make the decisions and the people receiving services
  • Rules need to be simplified and benefits need to be standardized
  • Supports should allow individuals to have a sense of dignity
  • The relationship needs to be changed between worker and client
  • Increased training is needed for workers
  • Doctors should be provided with a list of drugs that are covered
  • The category approach should be eliminated
  • Approach to services should be more personalized
  • More flexibility is needed in the rules
  • More promotion of benefits should be done
  • Things such as clothing purchases should be supplemented so that people in low-income would have increased choice in where they shop, this would raise self-esteem
  • Micro loans would help to get people working
  • The system needs to be streamlined
  • The referral process needs to be strengthened
  • Ensure that people get the support they need whether it is group support or one-on-one
  • Provide incentives to go back to school
  • Employers should be given incentives to provide training for their employees
  • People with practical experience should deliver services
  • Wage subsidy programs should be given to reputable companies
  • Benefits should be discretionary

Thanks to Adam Vasey of Pathways to Potential (Windsor Essex County Poverty Reduction Strategy) for this report on the Windsor-Essex consultation.

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