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Guelph residents weigh in on welfare reform

GUELPH — At a time when conservative politicians from London to Washington, D.C., are slashing social services to address spiralling debt and unemployment, Ontario is looking at ways to strengthen social assistance.

About 100 local recipients and providers of social services packed a church gymnasium in Guelph on Tuesday to imagine a better, more efficient welfare system.

Event host Daniel Moore, executive director of Family and Children’s Services of Guelph and Wellington, was impressed to see people who receive welfare mingling with those who administer it. “It’s pretty amazing, actually,” he said.

There were short speeches from three Guelph residents including a mother and daughter who have relied on welfare.

Tina Brophy said she was a child of privilege before drugs and an early pregnancy ruined her prospects. “It’s a quick and slippery slope down to the bottom, and I landed with a thud,” she said. “I became a hunter-gatherer.”

Brophy said an immediate $100 supplement for healthy food would help “make hunting and gathering a thing of the past” in the province. As of late last year, more than 830,000 Ontarians were receiving social assistance through either Ontario Works or the Ontario Disability Support Program.

Most of the Tuesday forum was devoted to roundtable discussions on four aspects of welfare reform: rules; assets and benefits; education, employment services and training; and the future of social assistance.

At one table, volunteer facilitator Lisa Needham led a discussion of assets and benefits while Cynthia Bragg, a teacher, social worker and disability support recipient, took point-form notes on a flip chart.

“I’m hoping they can make a more efficient, comprehensive system, and to help people get off of it,” Bragg said.

The group, which included housing activist Alan Pickersgill, artist James Gordon, veteran Onward Willow volunteer Wanda Lucier and Salvation Army caseworker Lloyd Hetherington, came up with three key suggestions: reduce the demoralizing clawback of benefits that kicks in when welfare recipients start working; stop making people drain their bank accounts in order to get assistance; and raise the assistance rates “to give people a level of dignity beyond the barest level of survival.”

They also took exception to a solution proposed by the provincial commissioners where social assistance rates would be kept low “to ensure that people are better off working.”

“The optics of that are awful,” Gordon said. “Let’s make it worse for you, so that a job seems better. That’s insulting.”

At another table, participants discussed ways to improve provincial employment services. Marian Garner, who helps people transition into the workplace with Royal City Christian Life Centre in downtown Guelph, suggested case workers get a bonus for keeping people employed. Deb Cripps of the Guelph Food Bank said employers need incentives to hire people on disability, since they are viewed as costly and risky.

Feedback from the forum convened by the Guelph and Wellington Task Force for Poverty Elimination will be delivered on Sept. 1 to the Commission for the Review of Social Assistance in Ontario. Comments can also be provided through an online survey at www.gwpoverty.ca.

Next June, commissioners will publish recommendations based on their findings.

Poverty task force co-ordinator Randalin Ellery said she hopes the review will trigger meaningful reform. “I think there’s just widespread acknowledgement that the system isn’t working as it is, and we need to make it better,” she said.

Moore credited the task force with sparking dialogue on the plight of low-income people in the county. “It seems like there’s now a forum where we can talk about these types of complex issues,” he said.

Asked to reflect on the riots that erupted in England’s suburbs nearly two weeks ago following deep cuts to social services in the country, Moore said communication must have broken down.

If people don’t come together and speak with one voice about the challenges they face, and if governments don’t listen and respond, things fall apart, he said.




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