thoughts after a visit to the social assistance offices

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I went last week with some friends into the Ontario Disability Support Program office (ODSP) and the Ontario Works (OW) office. It was my first time being in the building. I was struck by the difference between the carpeted and better furnished ODSP office and the bare floored empty waiting room of the OW office, as though the very rooms themselves where meant to emphasis worth of one group of clients over the other. Clients on ODSP receive almost double the amount a person on Ontario Works receives, and they are not required to apply for job after job as a person on OW is. When the provincial government talks about merging the two programs, I hear people on ODSP voice their fear. They are scared to be treated as people on OW are.

I was stuck also by the security measures. The secretary is behind glass. There are meeting rooms in which the caseworkers and clients meet, and these rooms are positioned between the waiting rooms and the inner office area with a door to each side. Caseworkers neither step out into the waiting room to enter with the clients nor lead the clients back through the internal hallways. Instead each enters by a separate door.

I was told by a friend it wasn’t always that way. I was told that the space was redesigned as the amount of assistance available to those in poverty decreased and the desperation increased. If the job ends up focusing more on telling people they don’t qualify than on helping those on need, the relationship between caseworkers and clients is bound to get tougher. It makes sense that the case workers needed to feel secure, yet in some ways it also reflects the way we turn to walls and weapons for security instead of building peaceful and just relations.

People talk about poverty reduction, instead of poverty elimination. The book Paved With Good Intentions, which I wrote about earlier, talked about the shift from the Jubilee 2000 idea that national debts should be rolled back to the more pragmatic attempts to cut down the debts of the most impoverished countries. I remember the Canadian government used to talk about eliminating child poverty. Now even mothers with young children get told they cannot get the assistance they need.

Ontario anti-poverty groups won a small partial victory in getting the government to reduce the amount they were cutting the fund that allows those on social assistance to pay moving costs, buy furniture or pay last months rent. However the fund has still changed. It used to be a mandatory fund, where if a person qualified for receiving it they received it, without regards for how many other people qualified. Now the fund is going to be discretionary, where even if a person qualifies they may or may not receive it depending on (among other things) how many other people applied around the same time. I’m assuming municipal departments and caseworkers will be setting priorities trying to assure that those who most need the money get it, but in the process of doing so I wonder if they will be continuing to make increasingly visible the distinction between those they determined to be the  “deserving poor” and the “undeserving poor” and if by the necessity brought on by smaller budgets they will be defining more and more as unworthy.

What do people think will happen to those for whom adequate assistance is not given? Do we believe that denied the money needed to put down last months rent (a requirement to get an apartment anywhere here) they will suddenly have the opportunity to financially support themselves?  Do we simply turn away from them when we pass them begging on the streets? Do we allow them to be pushed further and further out of sight through anti-loitering laws and increased policing?

I just shake my head. More policing is not a solution. Redesigning office-spaces might make the caseworkers feel more secure, but it doesn’t solve the problem of growing desperation.

There’s a group doing an art-project to raise awareness of the growing gaps in Ontario’s social safety net. I’m trying to think of what my children and I could sew to contribute to it. I know these types of projects aren’t magical. They don’t fix everything, but I keep hoping they can help create the political will for politicians to make the right decisions, and that perhaps they help build up the public awareness of the problems. Can they help counter the spin of Tim Hudak and the other provincial conservatives?

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