There is a gap, aggravated by the government and media, between how welfare recipients are perceived and the realities of living on social assistance. I know because I’ve been there. I am still there. Comments from Canadian politicians illustrate a theory that these misperceptions are being used as an excuse to reduce welfare spending by the government. Life on social assistance can be woeful, and welfare-to-work programs are negatively viewed, but there are other options and services available to help alleviate life on assistance. The problem with those services is that there may not be enough of them, and more often than not, people are not aware of them.
I am considered legally blind – on Social Assistance because of my disability.
My reality, as well as the unfortunate reality of many on social assistance, means going without milk money so you can have a coffee with your friends at Tim Hortons, or eating nothing but meals of rice and frozen vegetables for weeks at a time. So, when presented with the inadequacy of the welfare received by a mother of two in Toronto (Rebick, 1998), I can say that it’s not all that much better for a disabled person, or someone living alone. It hurts and disgusts me that there are people around me who think I like living this way, but my biggest concern is finding a way to provide for myself. I want to work, you see, but it is not easy to make that want a reality. Moreover, the idea held by some that social assistance recipients are all deadbeats and drunkards is laughable. Who could afford beer on $930 a month? I know I can’t.
Beer is not the only thing I can barely afford whilst being on social assistance. My glasses can cost more than $400 per pair. My social assistance program pays for those glasses, but if I were to obtain a minimum wage job, I would not be able to afford them, as I would not be able to save the money. Even with the assistance, though, I am still wearing a pair of 10-year-old glasses because social assistance only pays fully for the lenses, not for the frames*.
Despite my disability, I would gladly participate in a welfare-to-work program. The concept is sound, but existing programs are only superficially promising. Often they are thinly veiled “slave labour”, pushing people into low-wage jobs with few benefits, and no opportunity to learn skills that could benefit them in future. “The shortest route to a job has become the mantra of Workfare in Ontario, with no regard to longer-term training.” (Workfare Watch Bulletin, April 2002) This view is echoed by Jean Swanson, former president of the National Anti-Poverty Organisation, who feels that welfare-to-work programs serve no purpose other than moving people from one form of poverty to another (Rebick).
The solution would be programs that genuinely offered participants a way out of unskilled, low-paid labour through on the job training, but such schemes are rare.
I’ve been fortunate in finding Athabasca University’s distance education program. Their open admissions policy coupled with a government loan will, hopefully, lead me to employment. In addition, I have a computer provided through funding from ODSP (Ontario Disability Support Program) which allows me to function as a student, and provides me with my only means of making extra money. However, things like exam fees, bus fares, and Internet access cost extra, a drain on my meagre budget. Most people, though, are unaware of the existence of AU and ODSP, and in the case of AU specifically, many could not afford to go even if they knew. While a person who wants something badly enough will search it out themselves, if the government wants people off social assistance as badly as they seem to, they should put more effort into informing recipients of more options than just welfare-to-work programs. Another unfortunate reality: a government that seems bent more on reducing its spending “no matter what”, with “caseload reduction [becoming] an end in itself.” (Workfare Watch Bulletin) – rather than helping people to find solutions that will ensure they not only get off assistance, but manage to live decently enough to stay off.
Along with her concerns over the “poverty shuffle,” Jean Swanson asks, “How can we get the rich to share” (Rebick)? It would be nice to think that those who have would willingly share with those who do not. However, the idea of expecting them to smacks of a sense of entitlement that strikes far too close to the very same misconception that many of the working public have of those on social assistance. That misconception being that we all just want handouts, a free ride, and not to have to “pay our dues” for what we receive in life.
I do not want handouts; taking something for nothing is a concept that is repugnant to me. I want a life I can stand up and be proud of. I don’t want to continue depending on my grandmother for a decent meal, on my friend Diane to always buy the coffee when I’m out with her, on my friend Paul to pay for the beer. I want to be able to pay my way. I want to contribute. I want a system that doesn’t penalise me for the mistakes of others, and a government that will help me in some way other than by propagating the notion that just because I’m on social assistance means I’m a drunken deadbeat with no use or potential. I want control over my life. That’s what money means to someone like me; control. Feeling helpless is one of the worst feelings in the world, and, unfortunately, helpless is exactly how I feel being on social assistance.
* Currently my social assistance program covers 100% of the cost of lenses, but only up approximately $40 for the frames. $40 frames are not only ugly, they are often not suitable for the types of lenses my vision requires me to use.
“Kick “?Em Again”
by Judy Rebick
“Michigan school shooting: a tragic consequence of US welfare “?reform’ “
By Elisa Brehm, 28 April 2000
Workfare Watch Bulletin, Vol 1, No 15: http://www.welfarewatch.toronto.on.ca/wrkfrw/bul15.htm
Ontario Disability Support Program: http://www.cfcs.gov.on.ca/cfcs/en/programs/IES/OntarioDisabilitySupportProgram/
Lonita has been an AU student since early 2002, and is studying towards a Bachelor of General Studies in Arts & Science. She enjoys writing, creating websites, drinks far too much tea, and lives in hopes of one day owning a plaid Cthulhu doll. The most exciting thing she’s done so far in her lifetime is driven an F2000 racecar, and she’s still trying to figure out how to top that experience. Her personal website can be found at http://www.lonita.net and what you can’t find out about her through that, you can ask her via email: firstname.lastname@example.org