The Provincial Liberals did a funny thing last Friday. They changed the rules around the special diet supplement for Ontario Works and Ontario Disability Support Payment recipients, restricting the cash top-up to those with certain extreme illnesses. Of course, this was eminently predictable. Thousands of people started applying for the supplement generally not well known to welfare recipients thanks to OCAP sign-up clinics.
Nonetheless, it still felt strange. The ministry has essentially withdrawn a support system because people began to use it. Imagine if we took this same approach to, say, public transit. Subways are overcrowded, so get rid of them.
So while the social assistance recipients among the 200 or so people who marched in protest from City Hall to the ministry on Tuesday, November 8, would not get $250 a month to buy their kids fresh fruit, they would get the time of numerous police officers.
Since police were kind enough to lock the building down for activists, no welfare bureaucrats could emerge to take people's welfare. OCAP held another defiant, lovably ad hoc clinic, seeking to break paper blockades rather than police lines. Activists, and one or two doctors along for the ride, gathered in clumps with applicants to fill out the necessary forms.
Locked-out staffers milled about in confusion while police horses were silhouetted against the stark background of autumn trees and institutional architecture, as if in an H.R. Giger vision of the Royal Winter Fair.
There was more welcoming confusion back at City Hall, where councillors trod the same ground as OCAP. Indicative of the growing moral authority behind the Raise The Rates provincial coalition campaign, the city's community and social services committee virtually drank in deputations from various social assistance recipients and advocates.
The issue of the special diet was at the fore. Welfare recipients applying for the extra cash "were not exploiting a loophole," said Dana Milne of the Income Security Advocacy Centre. "It is up to medical practitioners [who have to sign the form] to decide what people need. Contrary to recent statements by [Community and Social Services Minister Sandra Pupatello], there is nothing in the legislation saying the special diet cannot be used to prevent future illness."
An example provided by Kevin Lee, director of Scadding Court Community Centre, is that people on social assistance who generally live somewhere between 41 and 66 per cent below the poverty line (a fact which calls into question both the terms "assistance" and "poverty line") are more likely to develop illnesses such as type-2 diabetes, a disease that Canada spends over $9 billion to treat.
After the deputations, the committee in short order passed motions recommending that council insist on a new regime at the provincial level. Specifically, the proposals are that rates be restored to levels predating the Harris-era cuts and accounting for inflation, the National Child Benefit Supplement clawback be abolished, social assistance costs be fully uploaded to the province, welfare assistance not be funded through municipal property taxes, the province recognize hunger as a special dietary need, and all city assistance workers be trained in the details of the special diet supplement.
Easy recommendations to make when it's not your money, of course. Yet chair Joe Mihevc was clearly passionate, and Jane Pitfield, despite supporting unlikely private sector solutions such as voluntary rent reductions, seemed to genuinely pause for thought after the slew of deputations.
But in keeping with the day's tone, there was some cognitive dissonance to get out of the way first. "In Canada, poverty is a relative measurement," quoth Councillor Norm Kelly. "In a country of billionaires, a millionaire is poor. As I understand the issue for immigrants, people are seeing themselves as poor only in comparison to the rest of the population. Our society has a built-in social elevator."
There are billionaires in Canada 16 of them. So a country of billionaires, why not? And, yes, immigrants who can't eat certainly do see themselves as poor in comparison to residents who can. Also technically true. And that a social elevator exists is a tenable position if we are dealing in metaphors, since you can't disprove a metaphor.
But you can expand it. The thing about an elevator is that there's no requirement that it only go up. In fact, most elevators go up and down, and tend to do both quite a bit. (Employment, for example, is a relative term, as both deputants and staff point out, speaking about how people go back and forth between assistance and temp work.) And it's safe to say that at the end of the day many elevators will be back at the bottom. The alternative is to take the stairs. But you can only do that if you're eating well.