In London and around the world, the Occupy movement has renewed attention on the growth of economic inequality, especially for those at the margins of society, the young, the jobless, the recently arrived. Although the movement has often been criticized for not providing a comprehensive set of solutions to these and other problems, in London it led to the formation of a Citizen’s Advisory Panel. On Monday, it was afforded delegation status at the Community Services Committee (CSC), consisting of Matt Brown (chair), Nancy Branscombe, Dale Henderson, Bill Armstrong and Harold Usher, to present its report on the Social Assistance Review and Economic Inequality in London, Ontario.
It was an impressive delegation. Addressing the committee were Rev. William Danaher, dean of the faculty of theology at Huron University College, Sean Quigley, executive director of Emerging Leaders, Eric Shepperd, Technical Advisor at Trinity United Church, Sister Sue Wilson, of Sisters of St. Joseph, and Glen Pearson, Director of the London Foodbank.
The Citizen’s Advisory Panel had held a number of public meetings, the most recent at the convention centre, to hear Londoners views on three questions in relation to social assistance:
- · What should the level of assistance be based on? Are the current levels appropriate?
- · Should individuals be required to deplete their assets before qualifying for social assistance?
- · Is it okay to claw back any additional money someone on social assistance may be able to earn through casual employment?
The timing couldn’t have been better. Some weeks ago, the CSC had requested a detailed overview and update on Ontario Works (OW), the program that addresses the plight of too many in our city, jobless and without resources to support themselves and their families. In a city with an unemployment rate of nearly 10%, and where good jobs are being lost daily, or so it would seem, councillors need get some understanding of how and to what extent the needs of this vulnerable group are being addressed. The staff report gave them some of the background they needed to appreciate the Citizen’s Advisory Panel submission.
In order to obtain support from Ontario Works, they learned, applicants have to have exhausted their own resources: houses, bank accounts, savings, RRSP, etc. At the end of last month, nearly 11,000 individuals and families met those qualifications, an increase of 5% over the previous year.
That shouldn’t surprise anyone; the unemployment rate, although there have been some improvements in the last few months, has remained stubbornly high and there is usually a time lag as applicants use up their resources.
Individuals receiving assistance through Ontario Works receive close to $600 per month to survive. Families are assessed on the basis of their composition, how many children and adults, ages etc. The transfer payments are cost shared 80/20 between the province and the city. The province has committed to assuming 100% of the costs in the future. The actual payouts do not come close to lifting people out of poverty.
A parallel program is provided through Ontario Disabilities Support Program (ODSP) for persons with chronic health problems. ODSP provides support that is about 50% higher than that provided through OW, and is also being fully uploaded to the province. Executive Director of Community Services, Ross Fair, estimated that approximated 15% of OW recipients could be classified as having chronic health conditions that make it impossible for them to ever function in the workplace.
When asked why they weren’t transferred to ODSP and its more generous provisions, Fair pointed out that a doctor’s assessment is required to qualify. Most of these individuals do not have family doctors. Under its new framework, plans are afoot to arrange for street level medical assessments to facilitate the transfer.
But going on ODSP, although providing higher support payments, is not without its own risks. Ontario Works also provides case management. Many of those who would qualify for ODSP have serious mental health or addictions problems; they need ongoing support to ensure that they manage their health conditions. Without that, they are likely to end up on the streets, in trouble with the community and the police.
But the overall picture was not a reassuring one. To force someone who has lost his or her livelihood to lose all their possessions as well before offering any help, limiting assistance so that basic needs cannot be met, and then taking away any extra money that one might be given or be able to earn to improve one’s condition is not a recipe for breaking the cycle of poverty.
That was the position of the Citizen’s Advisory Panel based on the community consultation it had undertaken. It was clear in its conclusions and recommendations. It considered the current levels of income support to be inadequate, the requirement of asset depletion “kicking the can down the street” and the current practice of clawing back earnings too severe, thereby acting as a disincentive to work and creating unintended and unwanted outcomes.
Sister Wilson said it best: “When there is exclusion from the community, society itself is weakened, weakened by problems of health, of inadequate education, of violence, of racism, and of sexism.
Councillor Branscombe thanked the panel for bringing the report. She noted that some on council had tried to reach out during the park occupation, although not totally successfully. She was unclear what council’s role might be in going forward. Upon the suggestion of Ross Fair, she moved endorsement of the report and its inclusion in the broader community report on the Social Assistance Review initiated by the province later in the spring.
Councillor Armstrong took specific aim at the province. The richer were getting richer, the poor were getting poorer and the middle class was disappearing. The current government wasn’t helping, he claimed. Action was needed. The right people needed to be elected. He took care not to name names.
Councillor Henderson acknowledged that the current income support levels were inadequate, but he not surprisingly he had a solution. Take all the charities and the nonprofits and tithe them. They’ve got lots of money, he assured his colleagues. Just take 10 percent and convert it into cash and disseminate it among those in need. Problem solved.
Not everyone understands the concept of tithing, but basically it's a 10% compulsory tax dating back to the middle ages and still used among some religious groups.
It certainly was an original solution. Unfortunately, the city doesn’t make the rules on who gets taxed or how much. In fact, charities are exempt from taxation. Ten percent of nothing is still nothing.
Councillor Hubert was more thoughtful. Although a product of an upper middle class upbringing, he had witnessed poverty close up working in a mental health centre on Queen Street in Toronto. He was concerned about the effects of poverty not only on those currently affected, but also their children.
“Look at the child impact,” he implored. “We need to help now or we’ll be helping them over the next 40 years.”
“We have a lot of work to do,” he concluded. “Thanks for putting a face on poverty that we haven’t seen for a long time.”
Committee chair Matt Brown echoed his sentiments but wondered what role council would play.
"We’ll have to spend some time reflecting on that,” he said.