mercy for those with zero power
by Linda McQuaig
Luckily for George W. Bush, he never had to rely on Ontario's welfare system.
If ever anyone has been given a second chance, it is the U.S. president, who managed to attain his current office despite a revelation, just prior to the election, that he had previously been convicted of drunk driving.
Right-wing media pundits rushed to point out that this shouldn't deter Americans from voting for Bush because he had since given up drinking as if the issue wasn't his callous, irresponsible behaviour but whether, as president, his driving would pose a danger to the nation's highways.
Bush also went missing while enlisted in the National Guard during the Vietnam War. The media decided not to make an issue out of his prolonged absence, even though, technically speaking, it left him open to the charge of desertion (a crime that, during war time, can be punishable by death in the U.S.)
Born into a wealthy, well-connected family, Bush is walking proof that, with sufficient resources, no intellectual or character deficiency need be an obstacle.
Bush's patrician, sheltered life is about as far as one can get from the harsh, deprived world in which Kimberly Rogers lived and died. As we saw last week, that's a world where there are no second chances.
Rogers apparently committed suicide in her sweltering Sudbury apartment, where she was under house arrest after being found guilty of welfare fraud.
Her crime was that she collected welfare benefits while also receiving a student loan. (She had just graduated with honours in social work at Cambrian College.)
Originally her welfare benefits had been cut off for three months but, because she was pregnant, a court ordered them temporarily restored.
At the time of her death, the amount of her fraud was being deducted from her welfare payments, leaving her, after rent, with $18 a month to live on.
If this strikes you as pretty soft treatment, you'll be pleased to know that the Ontario government has since tightened the rules considerably.
In April 2000, it introduced a zero-tolerance lifetime ban for anyone caught defrauding the welfare system for any reason. In future, there will be no Kimberly Rogers types out there flagrantly throwing around $18 a month.
Now let's just state clearly that what Rogers did was wrong. But on a scale of 1 to 10, in terms of abusing the system, I'd give it about a 2. She was, after all, just trying to get an education, and wasn't endangering anyone by, for instance, driving drunk.
It seems less offensive than the well-known practice of many business and professional people who routinely deduct part of the cost of their personal entertainment from their taxes.
This forces the rest of us to pay more tax, so we end up subsidizing their often-extravagant private outings to expensive restaurants and sports events. And not so they can get an education.
As Osgoode Hall tax professor Neil Brooks once observed: "I'd bet more fraud takes place on any given night at the SkyDome than at all the welfare offices in Ontario."
And when prominent people are caught ripping off the public purse in one way or another, they're rarely subject to lifetime punishments.
Environment Minister Chris Stockwell was forced earlier this year to repay $3,000 for food and liquor that he and his staff inappropriately billed to their government expense accounts but he's still in the cabinet.
But the most desperate, powerless members of society are held to a higher standard.
From the beginning, this Conservative government has shown no mercy for the poor.
Almost before Mike Harris located the washroom in the premier's office, he slashed welfare benefits by 22 per cent thereby abruptly stripping the province's poorest citizens of one-fifth of their incomes.
The Rogers inquest has been the first meaningful examination of what the Tories have done to the welfare system.
And after eight weeks of testimony, the jury came back with the recommendation that there should be no lifetime welfare bans, that cases should be dealt with individually.
But the government was ready; it quickly moved to smash any hope there might be a moment of reflection on the subject by those who make decisions with life and death consequences for the most helpless members of society. Before the afternoon was out, Social Services Minister Brenda Elliott outright rejected the jury's recommendation.
So it's clear second chances will remain the preserve of the privileged, zero tolerance the fate of those with zero power.
source URL: Toronto Star