Reuel Amdur shared his article in The Canadian Charger on his experience in Social Welfare implementing Ontario NDP policy.
Some comments on the article were made on the Ottawa Homeless List Serve shared other perspectives of what was/is in play for government by Alan Moschovich and Marlene Koehler.
Ontario’s NDP Government: A Sad History
Reuel S. Amdur
The current official abandonment by political parties of concern for the poor, in their focus on “the middle class,” calls to mind the Ontario NDP’s disregard for the poor going back to the days when they were in power, from 1990 to 1995. At the time, I was working first at Seaton House, a men’s shelter and residence operated by Toronto’s welfare department, and then as a supervisor in Ottawa’s welfare department.
When Bob Rae’s NDP government was elected, those of us concerned about the poor thought we had died and gone to heaven. Not. Under Rae the poor endured one blow after another. Prior to the Rae election, each December there was provision for a token amount added to the check as a Christmas bonus. During Bob Rae’s term in office, the Christmas bonus was abolished across the province.
As far as rates are concerned, prior to the Rae régime, each year it was practice to increase rates in recognition of changes in the cost of living. Rae interrupted that practice.
Then there is the matter of a form colloquially referred to as the layman’s medical. This was a form that a welfare worker could fill out in aid of a client applying for disability benefits. I remember being in a meeting with a physician who was on the Ottawa board which determined eligibility for such benefits. He waxed enthusiastic about layman’s medical forms completed by Holly Murphy, an Ottawa welfare worker. The form was the only designated input by the welfare worker about the condition of the client seeking designation as disabled. The doctor’s comment was an indication of its potential impact, but the Rae government abolished it. It became that much harder for someone to get the higher disability rate of assistance.
Rae’s government also hit welfare recipients with cars. They were allowed to have a car so long as its value was not greater than $5,000. ($10,000 is the current limit.) Welfare offices all began buying automotive red books, to determine the value of cars. The regulation went on to specify what would happen if someone showed up with a car worth more than $5,000. The person was given six months to dispose of the car. In fact, burdened by a rule book bigger than the phone book, workers frequently failed to apply the regulation. In her book Hope and Despair, Monia Mazigh describes her experiences in applying for welfare while she had a car. The first time, she was told that she was not eligible till she got rid of the car. The second time the worker ignored the car and put her on assistance. There was a complicating factor that was never raised with welfare: it was not her car. It was her husband’s, Maher Arar, who was in a Syrian prison at the time. Fun and games with a stupid regulation. The regulation is still in effect.
Sponsored immigrants were a special target. If a person applied for assistance because of a sponsorship breakdown, the immigrant’s assistance was dinged $50 a month. There were a few exceptions, but, for example, if the sponsor had left the country the deduction still applied. Fortunately, this regulation is now unpleasant history.
Another measure applied to new applicants for assistance. While the rules for the amount that recipients may keep from any earnings on welfare vary from time to time, leaving recipients confused and fearful about any work, at one point the Rae government decreed that new applicants would be docked 100% of earnings for the first several months on assistance. I remember one young man who had been on a federal make-work program in Kingston, silk-screening t-shirts. He could not make a living at it and came to Ottawa and applied for welfare. I told him about the rule. He told me that he would not be looking for work for that period of time.
The sad experience with Ontario’s NDP government carries an important lesson. Do not be lulled to sleep by a government labelled NDP, or socialist, or social democratic. Assume that, whatever government is elected, it is the enemy. Make it prove otherwise.
Comments from the list serve
My recollection was that the Rae government initially raised and then, faced with a continuing recession in which government workers had to forego some of their salary in “Rae days”, froze the social assistance rates.And that it was the Mike Harris government that actually cut the rates – and significantly: https://www.thestar.com/opinion/commentary/2013/04/26/its_time_to_end_the_erosion_of_public_assistance_in_ontario.html .I’m not sure whether you’re recommending Ontario keep its Liberal government, which has slowly liberalized some benefits (particularly work incentives). Or just demonstrating the importance of getting social democrats to commit to better reforms and holding them to account.
The history of what occurred in the support of people who were in need of social assistance during the Rae years was much more complex than can be or is presented by Reuel in this short piece. In the early months of the Rae government there was a window open for reform and many changes made were very positive. Then the window closed when the impact of the FTA and NAFTA hit Ontario, unemployment rose dramatically, government revenues fell and expenditures rose, creating a rapidly expanding deficit. Further, the Federal government limited funding for social assistance and social services under the CAP. By the time CAP was abolished in 1996, federal funding had dropped from 50% to less than 30%, an enormous impact during what was a federal government generated recession when social assistance was unfortunately becoming the biggest business in the province. Provincial finances went south rapidly, but even then the Rae government did continue to increase social assistance rates until the dependency rate (% of the population dependent on social assistance) reached levels not seen since the Depression. Nonetheless, there were opportunities for positive reform which were lost, so I do agree whole heartedly with the conclusion, that no government should be taken at its word alone. I am not sure that I would agree that every government is the enemy, but I do agree that governments that say they are intending to work according to social justice principles should be helped to it by an involved citizenry doing everything it can to push them in that direction. Everything from letter writing, phone calls, petitions, social media commentary to mass movements of people in the streets, all together play a role in influencing governments to act.