The perversion of poverty in Ontario

ODSP believes that my poverty is my fault, and so it keeps recipients far below the poverty line in a form of systemic violence that sadly exhausts us and makes us sick

What life is like living on this side of the poverty line is not easy to share personally. I am a 54-year-old transgender FTM and have been a recipient of the Ontario Disability Support Program since 2011.

I had never been suicidal before being on ODSP. Still, I am aware that I do not experience the harsher realities of the intersections of race, poverty and disability experienced by others. I am on ODSP rather than the more damaging Ontario Works (OW) system. I can supplement my income with jobs, and I have had the chance to live in a European country where paying taxes is still understood as a fundamental gesture of belonging to a society. 

I fit the ODSP definition of “disabled” and thus I get a monthly allowance, which is 40 per cent under the Low-Income Measure poverty line, about half the current Toronto average market rent for a one-bedroom. In real terms, I am poorer than ODSP recipients were in 1998. 

When I work, which is not always, I can keep the first $200, but after that ODSP claws back 50 per cent. (Who else pays 50 per cent taxes?) 

ODSP believes that my poverty is my fault, and so it keeps recipients far below the poverty line in a form of systemic violence that sadly exhausts us and makes us sick. 

It wraps us in a retaliatory network of very intricate, perversely intimate and punitive rules and practices. I constantly feel entangled in a network of strings. What strings? The list is more or less undignifying depending on our conditions: health, doctors, diet, survival needs, assistive devices, location, living situations, rent. 

Were I to lose my home, for example, I would lose my “shelter allowance” and receive $489 less every month. Shouldn’t it be the opposite so that I can find another home?

If I move in with a partner, ODSP will expect my new partner to provide for me after three months even if family law says a partner can be considered a common-law spouse only after three years. 

In prison, the lack of stimulation that ensues from the limitation of space and movement triggers a rewiring of the nervous system. This is a very normal phenotypical adaptation to a new context. The same has happened for me over my seven years on ODSP. I am being rewired as I am closely controlled and forced to constantly strategize for survival. I have slowly forgotten how to live. I am forgetting how to be loved, how to sense that I exist, how to experience joy. I am forgetting slowly that as a human being, I am entitled to exist as much as anybody else, including the individuals who make crucial decisions about my life. I am moulded to become a sub-Ontarian or even a subhuman to whom it appears normal to be controlled by poverty and ODSP. 

On July 31, 2018, the violence went to another level when Lisa MacLeod, Minister of Children, Community and Social Services, announced the Ford government would halve the increases to OW and ODSP allowances that had been passed under the previous Liberal government. 

MacLeod also cancelled the Basic Income Pilot project and paused or revoked some 19 other ODSP changes that would have brought ODSP closer to our rights. 

Last but not least, she announced that she and her ministry were going to take the very short next 100 days to manifest their brand of “compassion” and “patch” our Ontario social assistance so that OW and ODSP recipients can “get back on track” and finally surrender to the “best social program [that] is a job.” 

This large redesign has not been much discussed in the media although it affects more than a million Ontarians. There are more than 451,000 people in the province who rely on OW benefits. And more than 508,000 ODSP recipients.

MacLeod’s reification of Mike Harris’s workfare philosophy can only remind us of the darkness of the Harris era and of how many marginalized individuals struggled. Does this minister not remember? Can she not face the truth that the sharp strings of the past Ontario workfare policies cut people into pieces? I wonder what images she has of our lives. Are we lazy fraudsters? Vulnerable creatures incapable of self-determination? Are we disgusting flesh? Are we ugly monsters who patiently wait for incentives and punishments? Or, are we pure money, larvae soon to reveal unbearable superpowers? Are we dignity divided by 100? Maybe we simply are on the death track. 

I have lost a lot in the last seven years and there is a point at which I will not have the resources to stay alive. If I am to be pushed into this final no man’s land, I would like to have control over my death. And I am not alone. 

Since July 31, 2018, most of my conversations with other ODSP recipients have led to discussions about assisted suicide. Our minds have created a space where our freedom has broken away from our political fight for disability rights. Please don’t get us wrong. We are not engaging in dark humour. Neither are we in need of psychiatric treatment or medications. Our minds have created a space where our freedom is in the hands of others. 

One ODSP recipient recently wrote on the ODSP Action Coalition Twitter account: “They have dehumanized us, so why not offer to put us down like dogs if they are going to treat us like animals?”

Minister MacLeod has chosen November 8 to announce what her ministry’s version of social assistance will look like, but has not invited the advice of OW and ODSP recipients who will live inside her system while she will be watching from outside (or not at all). By rushing toward change and by erasing our right to co-manage the systemic poverty and dis-ability, we are trapped. It is unacceptable. | @nowtoronto

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