a Kafkaesque hell: activist
Sudbury - An elderly lady in the London area forgot to mention her Canada Pension Plan payments on her welfare application, and was forced to plead guilty to welfare fraud and go to prison.
That was the testimony of anti-poverty activist Jacqueline Thompson at the coroners inquest into the death of Kimberly Rogers on Tuesday.
Thompson is the executive director of Lifespin, a London, Ont.-based non-profit group that exists to support and provide resources to empower low-income people to move on with their lives.
Lifespin was founded in 1989 and achieved charitable status in 1994.
A former welfare mother herself, Thompson talked about duct-taping her sons shoes to keep them from falling apart and said her credit rating was effectively destroyed by going on welfare.
Thompson painted a frightening picture of welfare life, suggesting recipients must live under heavy stress because of constant surveillance by welfare authorities, the stigma of being on social assistance and unclear rules administered by capricious officials.
The woman who failed to report her CPP payments, she said, cared only about two things her apartment and her cat, yet she lost both when she was sent to jail.
An emotional Thompson shared other anecdotes, such as a woman who had $195 deducted from her welfare cheque for the offence of having dinner at her mothers house on Sundays and bringing home the leftovers.
Another woman, who was disabled, had her cheques withheld so many times that she ultimately killed herself.
It can send you over the edge if youre already on the edge, said Thompson of the stress of being suspected of committing fraud by Ontario Works.
Rogers, 40, died of an overdose of anti-depressants in her Sudbury apartment in August 2001 during a heat wave. At the time of her death, Rogers was eight months pregnant and under house arrest for welfare fraud.
Thompson added that many single parents on welfare live in fear of losing their children if a cheque is delayed, or support is cut off.
A failure to keep food in the refrigerator, or send their children to school in clean, presentable clothes can result in the removal of children to foster homes, she said.
Asked for suggestions to the welfare system, Thompson said the rules governing Ontario Works should be clear and plain and available, yet they are not, so it is easy for recipients to wind up in trouble inadvertently.
She noted that at one point, the province suggested recipients take in borders to raise extra money. When they did so, Ontario Works decided a number of young women who took in male borders were suddenly in spousal relationships and cut off support.
Many welfare recipients have trouble finding employment, said Thompson, explaining: theres not great jobs to be had out there for unskilled workers.
She added that many welfare households do not have telephones, and employers typically throw out resumes that do not have a telephone number or an address.
Thompson added that the basic skills programs offered by Ontario Works do not offer much real assistance to recipients who wish to work. Many of them feel they have been put through a treadmill of useless, time-consuming tasks that dont take (them) anywhere, said Thompson.
Aside from Thompsons testimony, the inquest saw some flashes of courtroom drama when lawyer Jacquie Chic tried to ask Thompson about the effects of welfare policies on women. The coroner, Dr. David Eden, stopped Chic in mid-question, reminding her he had already ruled that supposed systemic discrimination against women is not an issue that will be examined by the inquest.
Are you in violation of my ruling? asked Eden.
The lawyers reply prompted Eden to add: Dont speechify, just answer the question.