Ottawa Citizen
Friday 9 March 2001

Shocking close-up look at poverty

Dave Brown
The Ottawa Citizen

The following close-up look at poverty came about during a recent meeting with lawyer Sonia Levesque-Parsons of West End Legal Services. I couldn't understand why a man couldn't get help in the system, and she offered to explain.

She kept starting sentences with: "Did you know?" I left the meeting dazzled by what I didn't know. Before reading on into a field of question marks, pick your own euphemism for welfare. I like the current term, Ontario Works, because the acronym best describes the situation -- OW.

- Did you know that the federal government several years ago introduced the National Child Benefit Supplement as a step in its fight against child poverty? That among the poorest of the poor, those on welfare, it was to be added to the Child Tax Credit? Did you know that in Ontario that supplement was quickly considered additional income, and much of it was clawed back by the provincial government? Do you still doubt some kids go to school hungry?

- Did you know the poor can't borrow, even from a friend or relative? Maybe the kids got sick and money from the tight budget went to medicine not covered by the drug card, but grandmother will lend a bit to see you through until your next welfare cheque. If on welfare or a disability program, a person caught borrowing will have that money deducted from his/her next assistance cheque, dollar for dollar. That means the loan will have to be repaid twice. The only group facing this kind of double jeopardy is made up of the poorest among us.

- Did you know a person on welfare with a desperate case of the shorts can't even hock the toaster until the end of the month for a bit of extra cash? That's extra income and will be deducted.

- Did you know that if you have a comfortable life and decide to cohabitate you have 12 months under income tax guidelines before common-law status kicks in? But if a man moves in with a woman on welfare (statistically most victims of this glitch are women) the grace period is considerably shortened. It kicks in immediately. He goes on the lists as a spouse and is expected to support the woman and her children. There is no grace period. Is it possible this handicaps a poor woman's search for a new partner?

- Did you know an adult who has received Ontario Student Assistance Program loans, or is deemed disabled, is not entitled to financial assistance if he lives with his parents?

Even if he is disabled, he doesn't qualify for rent assistance if under his parent's roof. If he does have some source of income and his parents are on welfare, he can't pay rent or it will be deducted from the parents' assistance cheque.

- Did you know if a person on welfare or disability has a disagreement with a decision made by a case worker, he/she has the right to appeal? Step 1 is an "internal review." The decision will be reviewed by a person in the same office as the person whose decision is under review. Would you be comfortable with that? You can next appeal to a tribunal, but only after the first bureaucratic process is cleared. Do you think the first step is speedy?

- Did you know there are tight deadlines in the internal review process and if a person misses them he can lose his right to appeal? Although the process is complicated and filled with deadlines, it doesn't make allowances for the illiterate or the mentally ill.

- Do you think you have an advantage because you own your own home? Should circumstances force you to ask for assistance while waiting for Employment Insurance, you'll be forced to first sign a "consent to lien." Then you'll get some "shelter" money to see you through. The lien won't come off until you repay every nickel. Should you want to refinance your home at any point while there's a lien on it -- good luck.

- Are you going to sleep at night thinking that if your luck turned bad and you developed a disability, your fellow taxpayers will help you? Even with a stack of papers from your doctor swearing you can't work, there's no guarantee you'll get a disability pension. Applying for one is a long and painful process.

- Did you know the going rate of support we give a single person is $520 a month? Do you know what the tight housing market in the capital has done to rents? Do you know how to get a job without going to interviews? Do you know what a bus pass costs?

- Has anybody any idea how much could be saved if we, as a society, stopped being such tight-asses and by loosening restrictions were able to cut back on bureaucracies needed to run such draconian programs. There are in Ontario 72 funded agencies similar to Ms. Levesque-Parsons' helping the poor fight bureaucrats. We're weaving red tape at a furious rate, and paying highly to have it unravelled.

Dave Brown is the Citizen's senior editor. Send e-mail to dbrown@thecitizen.southam.ca Read previous columns by Dave Brown at www.ottawacitizen.com

Copyright 2001 Ottawa Citizen Group Inc.