by SARAH BLACKSTOCK AND JACQUIE CHIC
Rogers was convicted of fraud for violating the rules of social assistance. She made the mistake of collecting both social assistance and a student loan. For this "crime," Rogers was sentenced to six months house arrest.
In the sweltering heat of the summer of 2001, confined to her Sudbury apartment and eight months pregnant, Rogers died. A coroner's inquest was convened to examine her death.
Last December, after careful scrutiny of the details of her life, and the social safety net that failed her, the jury made 14 recommendations. Most of the recommendations focussed on the inadequacy of the existing social assistance system in Ontario.
In their recommendations, the jury outlined concerns about some components of the existing social assistance system that are "having a devastating and detrimental effect on our society" and that the system is failing to "prevent (people) from having to go without food and/or shelter ..."
Specifically, the jury recommended, among other things, that the government review social assistance rates to ensure they reflect the actual cost of living and that the lifetime ban from social assistance upon conviction of fraud be eliminated. A year after the release of these recommendations, only one of them has been implemented.
Government, city and anti-poverty officials have drafted a report that can be used as a resource by social managers tasked with deciding whether cases involving allegations of welfare fraud should be referred to police for investigation. Managers would take into consideration mitigating life circumstances.
Life is full of unexpected events. Many are happy ones, but many are not. The loss of a job, the loss of a partner, illness - such events can have dramatic effects on our lives.
Indeed, these are the three main reasons people find themselves requiring social assistance.
It is precisely because of the unpredictable nature of life and the potentially dire consequences that we have created a social safety net.
This net is supposed to "catch" and support us; it's supposed to not only prevent us from crashing, but assist us in our efforts to rebuild lives characterized by security and dignity.
However, the social assistance system in Ontario is in dire straits.
The rates of assistance are so low that recipients often have to choose between buying food or paying the rent.
A recent study from the University of Western Ontario indicates the number of children entering the Children's Aid system in London, Ont. has increased dramatically.
The caseload in 1995 was 445, in 2002 it nearly doubled to 883. Local advocates point to the dramatic cuts in social assistance rates as one of the main causes of the growing number of caseloads. Parents simply can't provide for their children.
A single mother with one child receives $957 a month. In Toronto, the average cost of a two-bedroom apartment is $1,040. A single person with no dependents receives $520 a month. In Toronto, the average cost of a bachelor apartment is $731.
As the jury recommendations suggest, people in Ontario deserve a social safety net that doesn't force them in live in squalor conditions making choices between eating or heating.
Despite the horrid inadequacy of social assistance rates and the clearly documented devastation the low rates are creating, the McGuinty government has yet to move on its promise to raise the rates by 2 to 3 per cent. They blame the deficit. (Although, they're still able to cough up housing allowances of $16,000 a year for MPPs.)
Of course, it must be pointed out that a 2 to 3 per cent increase is virtually meaningless and far from adequate.
For a single mother with one child, such a raise would mean between $19 to $28 more a month - not even enough for a pair of winter boots.
Clearly, the new government is going to have to demonstrate political courage and leadership.
Making hard choices, we've been told by Premier Dalton McGuinty, is the job of government. Indeed it is. Making the right choice, the just choice, is often very hard when powerful interests are breathing down one's neck.
Throughout the throne speech, there was much reference to "our" government. It remains to be seen, however, just whose government it is.
It certainly is not the government of low-income people or anyone who cares about real justice.
Sarah Blackstock is
research and policy analyst and Jacquie Chic is director of advocacy at
the Income Security Advocacy.
Source - Toronto
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