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Dr. Stephanie Baker Collins, associate professor in the School of Social Work

The coming war on the poor

Stephanie Baker Collins, an associate professor in the School of Social Work and co-chair of the McMaster Community Poverty Initiative on discusses Ontario Premier Doug Ford's coming reform of social assistance in a recent op-ed published in the Hamilton Spectator.

Nov 23, 2018

Looming social assistance reforms will not help the poor, but will force people into precarious employment

Political slogans like "For the People" have become an art form, with professional experts crafting finely-honed messages to the electorate.

These messages are not free floating or unconnected to ideas of what government ought to do in any given situation. There are political frames operating behind each message, though they may be deliberately hidden.

The political slogan, "For the People," would have us believe Premier Doug Ford will weigh in on behalf of the underdog. 

I had a conversation some years ago with someone struggling to survive on social assistance. She saw it as a hopeful sign that Rob Ford, the premier's brother and then-mayor of Toronto, had targeted free perks like passes to the Toronto Zoo for Toronto city councillors.

To her, this meant that some of the money that wrongly went to politicians might make its way to low-income people like herself.

In the same way we might mistake the slogan "For the People" to mean that a Doug Ford government will help those who are struggling financially.

We need to understand that the target behind the slogan is not the economic elite, but the (Liberal) political elite. Ford wants to go after the political establishment, but he is getting his marching orders from the economic elite.

His aim is help those who are the supposed victims of the endless "red tape" put in place by government, not those who have been the victims of the world of precarious work.

If we understand this as his aim, then recent policy decisions make perfect sense. 

Cancelling labour reforms is aimed at helping business, not improving the lives of vulnerable workers. Requiring businesses to treat their employees fairly is "red tape" to Doug Ford, red tape put in place by political elites. 

There has been substantial coverage of the cancellation of the basic income pilot, but this is just one front in what looks to be a coming war on the poor. 

The first salvos were the reduction of the planned $23-a-month increase for singles on Ontario Works to a paltry $11.50 a month. Minister of Children, Community and Social Services Lisa MacLeod would have us believe it was her "compassion" that led her to save half the planned three per cent increase in social assistance. 

The government also cancelled important policy changes that would have improved the lives of those on social assistance.

One change would have met MacLeod's desire for "making sure that we have an ability to integrate people back into the workforce where they can and making sure that they keep more money in their pockets."

This change would have allowed persons who work while on OW to keep up to $400 without having it taxed back at 50 per cent, an increase from the current limit of $200. 

This extra money encourages employment and allows those who are working part-time to pay for such necessities as clothes for work, transit fare, and a phone to keep in touch with employers.

Cancelling this change warns us that we are mistaken to read "For the People" to mean government has a role to assist those struggling economically or to require businesses to treat their employees fairly.

We should expect the coming reform of social assistance to force more recipients into this unprotected world of precarious work.

In the world of political spin, a war on the poor is rarely openly directed at the poor themselves. It is cloaked in words and phrases such as "compassion" and "giving people back their dignity."

It works like this: First, you cancel important revenue streams so as to shrink the government's spending capacity. Then you inflate the size of the deficit and warn Ontarians that we will all have to sacrifice. 

Meanwhile, you have promised tax cuts to large corporations, and to middle- and upper-income groups, which you have to pay for. 

Cancelling improvements to social assistance and cancelling labour reforms that help precarious workers makes it clear that people with the least secure incomes will make the greatest sacrifice. 

In the coming days of social assistance reform, we would do well to read behind the words that are used to justify policy plans that punish the poor. Words and phrases like "cycle of poverty," "welfare dependency," "means-test," "putting people back to work" and "giving a hand up."

Don't get duped into thinking they have anything to do with dignity and compassion. 

The net result could very well be a transfer of income from the very poorest to the rest of us.

Original article published by the Hamilton Spectator.
Stephanie Baker Collins is associate professor in the School of Social Work and co-chairs the McMaster Community Poverty Initiative.