I want to talk about welfare, the money kind, what more enlightened folks call “social assistance”. I’m weary beyond belief at the ignorance out there when it comes to people who live off the dole. Far, far too often I hear people use epithets like lazy, bums, scammers, cheats, and even worse. A disturbing number of Canadians hold these beliefs based on nothing but lack of information and prejudice –a kind of economic bigotry. The assumption is that if you aren’t working and paying your way, you are at best a loser and whatever situation you find yourself in it’s your fault and only a reflection of a lousy character. In other words, you deserve your poverty, and don’t deserve the pittance the government gives you.
Never mind the fact that some of the largest corporations in Canada are giving free money (including the billions enjoyed by wildly profitable oil patch), and the whole host of tax privileges enjoyed by the economic elite. The lower the person’s status, the lower the value we ascribe to them.
Of course most of these condemning individuals can give an example of someone cheating the system, someone who obviously didn’t deserve government financial help, but got it all the same. What’s interesting about these anecdotes is that it’s never about a person they directly know, but someone someone else told them about. It’s always rumour.
Of course there are some people scamming the government, but the biggest cheats are extremely wealthy individuals who find all kinds of ways of hiding money from the taxman. In BC, a single employable individual earns around $600 a month. That’s not chump change but compared to government budgets and other treasury loses, it’s insignificant. And even when the government did a major crackdown a few years back, very few cheats were actually caught. It’s just not worth all the hassle for such small amounts of money. Social assistance really is an option of last resort
Study after study examining those on welfare reveal a constant parade of misery. The vast majority of those on government assistance suffer from some kind of affliction: mental health problems, drug or alcohol addiction, some kind of personal catastrophe. We should all be able to imagine situations in which we could simple lose our ability to care for ourselves, where our world comes crashing down on us and we simple cannot function as we once did, at least temporarily.
People who find themselves on social assistance almost never have other supports like family or friends they can count on until they get back onto their feet. And that’s another point: by far most of those on welfare are there temporarily, reeling from a situation out of their control. Once their lives stabilise, they get off as soon as possible. Why? Because the process is so belittling and dehumanising.
When you apply for welfare, the first thing that will be reflected back to you, although not in so many words, is that you shouldn’t be there. The questions you have to answer reveal that the government assume you are trying to cheat them, and even if not, you shouldn’t be asking for help. The questions will be pointed and probing, not quite accusing you of not wanting to work, although that’s the gist.
Decisions will be made that you have no say on and although there are appeal processes, these are bureaucratic in nature and have little to do with actually supporting you or holding compassion. If someone in the assistance office makes a mistake on your file, tough luck. If your money doesn’t come, good luck getting your worker on the phone. When you go into the welfare office the energy is horrible: mistrust, anger, aloofness, detachment, and judgement.
Although I have no doubt that most of the front line workers care about their clients, they are caught in a system that is utterly malignant to those it serves, and the people coming in are at the end of their ropes and not exactly at their cheeriest best, either
As I mentioned in earlier posts, I was once on welfare for a couple of months after my breakup with Tracy. In those days (mid 1990s) the process was far more human and generous and it really saved mine and my kid’s bacon. But that was before a decade of BC Liberal bigotry directed against the poor.
At the time I knew two women who were also on welfare, both middle-aged single moms, both university students. In those days, welfare would actually fund you while you went to school, knowing the student loan system was grossly insufficient to raise a family (such help as long since been curtailed).
Neither of these women had a career; previously they were employed in low paying, low status work. Given the funding limitations of the day, without welfare they wouldn’t have been able to afford university while raising their teenage kids.
So what happened to them? The one woman graduated from university with a double major and is social worker, and has been employed as a professional for almost 20 years. The other woman carried on with her studies and is now a university professor, having achieved her PhD.
Without the welfare they received neither of these women would have reached the levels they eventually accomplished (and the taxation they must now pay, which far exceeds what they received from the government). Neither of them would have reached their human potential without government help. These stories – which are NOT hearsay – are a far cry from how so many people view those on government assistance. But such is the difference between bigotry and reality.
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