What is social assistance really about anyway?

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A few days ago I had a conversation with a woman on Ontario Works (welfare). She described what she goes through in order to get emergency dental care. She has to go first to her worker and a funding card. Then she goes to try to find a dentist that will accept the funding. Not all dentists will accept it since the government will pay the dentist only 50 – 60% of the ODA fee guide rates and the dentists are basically being asked to subsidize the government’s program by accepting half rates. Even once she finds a dentist she has to hope and pray that there won’t be extra expenses because she wouldn’t have the money to pay for them. She lives on less than $600 a month and there isn’t any left to save for emergencies.

Yet this past year the Ontario government capped the amount of health related discretionary benefits for people on Ontario Works. Workers will be under more pressure to deny clients access to care. How bad does a dental emergency have to get before the worker sees it as worth having cared for?

As I write this I can already hear the voices of some friends and relatives who would say “but I don’t have dental care, why should they?” Really, here in Canada we have health care provided as long as the health problem is not within our mouths. It makes little sense and we should be working for provincial dental care on the same level as our health care. We should have it for everyone.

The loss of emergency dental care for people on OW goes beyond just the lack of dental care faced by those not on OW, because those on OW lack any other means of aquiring it. They must have depleted their savings in order to get to the point where they qualify to go on assistance. Then they are given just barely enough to pay rent or food so they have no means of putting aside any money to pay for such emergencies. We cannot ask them to be “responsible for their own dental care” because we have put them in a position where they either have to be off OW or they cannot have any extra money saved.

We have to ask ourselves whether Ontario Works is supposed to function as a social safety net. Is it supposed to be adequate to keep people, not just alive, but able to live in dignity at times when they are unable to find employment? Or is it meant to be inadequate, a way of keeping the poor from dying on the streets but offering nothing more?

To put it another way, do we look at people on social assistance as people who do not deserve an adequate life because they do not have paid employment? Do we see people on it as inherently undeserving? Or do we view social assistance as something that anyone could end up on as a result of circumstances beyond their control? As a social safety net is it supposed to catch us and allow us to continue as who we are – people of worth, deserving of health care and dignity – even when the economy does not need our labour?

Some would probably say the safety net has to catch us but it has to punish us a bit too or no one would work and everyone would just be on it. People seem to think others want to be on it! People want to live in poverty, as long as they don’t have to work? I don’t believe that. Poverty is systematically created. Poverty keeps other people in line. Poverty allows the concentration of wealth in the hands of others.  In some cases people might prefer social assistance to working jobs that pay so little they would remain below the poverty level, but who can really blame them for that? Either way they have no choice but poverty. Why should working a job that does not pay a living wage be considered a virtue? Low-income earners need to go on strike, and social assistance is their strike pay! But even at that, we never know another person’s story, why they might be on social assistance.

Can the desire to have everyone in the workforce justify, in any way, cutting emergency dental care? There’s a difference between saying, okay, on social assistance you won’t have much extra spending money and saying because you are on social assistance you are a drain on society, unworthy of proper healthcare.  We need to keep talking about social assistance as something that is here for all of us. Any of us might someday need it. Our children might, our cousins, uncles, aunts, parents, grandparents. It isn’t something that “we the good people with jobs” do for “those lazy people.” It isn’t us against them. It is something here for all of us when we need it, because we might.

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One thought on “What is social assistance really about anyway?

  1. I was in a local drop-in center, charity cafeteria, yesterday, where there is also some mental health help given through Trellis. An older, disheveled gentleman, was also there, looking for a place to stay after losing his bed at the shelter -28 day limits on staying apparently. They were able to give him a small bag of food, but no place to heat up and eat, or bed to sleep. When revolution comes, it shall make the French version, seem like a picnic.

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