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Poor Women Speak Out In Ottawa
Deputation on BILL 142 to the Standing Committee on Social Development, At the Delta Hotel, Ottawa, 21 October 1997, 10:00 A.M. Presented by Sherrie Tingley, Barrie Action Committee for Women Monica Petzoldt, Barrie Action Committee for Women/Ontario Board Member of the National Anti- Poverty Organization (NAPO)
I would like to begin this morning by making introductions and thanking you for the opportunity to present on Bill 142. My name is Sherrie Tingley, and I am here on behalf of the Barrie Action Committee for Women, but more importantly I am a single mother living in poverty.
My partner for this presentation is Monica Petzoldt and she is also here on behalf of the Action Committee as well she sits as an Ontario Board Member for the National Anti-Poverty Organization (NAPO). She also is a single mother living in poverty. Monica is on Family Benefits and works part-time and is directly effected by this bill.
In our community (Barrie) there are many people who rely on municipal and provincial welfare in order just to get by. And even at that most are just getting by. Others are not so fortunate, and are homeless or on their way to becoming homeless. Single mothers are being forced to give up their children to their ex-partners; often abusive partners. Other single moms are being forced to ask the Children's Aid Society to "temporarily" look after their children. But often temporarily becomes "Crown Ward" not usually because that is what a mom chooses but because she is on social assistance and living in poverty. And because she is poor, she is labelled: neglectful, lazy, unable to budget, dependant on the "system", won't work, etc.. We exaggerate not. Most people on assistance can relate to this type of abuse that is heaped upon their heads on a daily basis whether or not they have children.
We have many people who are forced to go through garbage dumpsters looking for food and clothing. The ones that are the fittest help out the ones that are unable to go garbage picking because they are disabled, or too weak, or too old. When this fact was mentioned to an official at our local social services office he stated that "people have always gone through the dumpsters". How does making a statement like that address the problem?
Are people going through the garbage because they choose to? We know that this is not the case, they are being forced to live like this. Especially since October '95 when the Harris government "chose" to cut welfare payments by 21.6%.
This same government has brought in "Ontario Works" (Workfare), we don't know what Ontario did before Ontario Works. We suppose that according to the Tories, we were "Ontario too lazy to work". Everyone (except women with preschool age children and the disabled) will be expected to "voluntarily participate" in workfare and it would appear that people will not even have a guarantee of workplace safety. The legislation expressly removes any obligation to adhere to the employment standards legislation. They will not be allowed to refuse work because working conditions are unsafe or because they do not have or have not been provided with the proper safety equipment to do the job.
The Tories believe that the Ontario Works Act will "teach" people on welfare self-reliance through employment or they will suffer the consequences. People needing financial assistance may be forced to take out a loan through their local Ontario Works office and be forced to pay it back through income, assets, or whatever measures necessary. People will work for their cheque through workfare and will also be expected to pay it back supposedly through future earnings? Does this mean that people will pay twice? It creates a financial trap from which many will never recover.
People on social assistance want to work, need to work, but there are not enough jobs, not enough jobs that pay a living wage. How do we value people in this society? Is it all about having a job? What about single moms who choose to stay home to raise their children? Why is that job not valued? The job of mothering is not valued if you a single mother, but certainly encouraged if you have a partner in your life.
What about women who are fleeing abusive partners? (Most single mothers on welfare are there because they have fled an abusive relationship). Will they be given time to get their lives together?
People who own homes and are forced to apply for assistance will have a lien placed against their home. Most of these people will probably not have much equity in that home. How long before their bank will call in the mortgage, as the bank watches more and more of the home being owned by the local social services office?
Bill 142 is not an isolated piece of legislation. It is part of an ideological "get tough" policy. It's a philosophy that doesn't care about poor people; a fundamental change in the way we consider our responsibility to our neighbours and the value of "all Ontarians in our society."
When Canada created our social safety net we were ensuring a minimum standard of living for all Canadians regardless of their circumstances.
When the Liberal government removed the Canada Assistance Plan (CAP) that governed the standards for provinces receiving transfer payments, it in effect gave permission for provinces to reduce or even eliminate some of the protections that were part of previous provincial social programs.
As a result the public has been encouraged to believe that previous social programs were excessive, wasteful, overly generous to the "undeserving" and the cause of economic dependency for the unemployed.
When we created our social programs we were moving away from the misery of the depression years, yet we are now going back to those years. The difference though between now and then is that during the depression years, everyone was poor. Now-a-days some people have so much, while so many have to do without. Poverty is just not about having enough to eat, it is about not being able to take advantage of the day to day activities that other people in this society take for granted.
Poverty is about not being able to pay for pizza days, fund-raising days, milk days, trips to the theatre, buying books through the school, school trips, school electives, etc. It is about standing out in a classroom of kids who just know that you are different. It is about someone saying you can't afford it, you don't deserve it, you're on welfare!!
How is this legislation going to address any of these issues? It is not. It is just going to penalize people further.
We already have a hierarchy within our current welfare system. A hierarchy which the welfare system strives to maintain to the detriment of the clients which it serves. We have the disabled who are the most deserving of all of us because they can't work. Then we have the next deserving, which are parents with disabled children and single moms with preschool age children. They can't work because they need to stay home with the little ones. The next bunch are the single moms with older children, they "choose not to work" or can't work for a variety of reasons. Then we have the two parent family on welfare, one of the parents is expected to look for work while one can remain at home to look after the children. Then we have the most despised of the lot. The single person, he/she will not work, is too lazy to work.
So, you see, it is a dog eat dog world even within the non-deserving as to who in this bunch is the deserving poor and the undeserving poor.
Why are we made to feel like scum, why is it when I tell my story as a single mom living in the Barrie community people who listen to me say " but I don't mean you dear?" What does that say about the average person on welfare? I am just like most people on welfare, I just want to raise my children, contribute to society in anyway that I'm able to, be valued and respected for being a human being who deserves understanding and compassion.
Today I am a woman on social assistance and working part-time. People value that somewhat because I'm seen as at least trying to do something. When my job is over in March of '98, because my place of employment is closing, I will go back to being a lazy, good for nothing, parasite on society.
Nothing will have changed except I may not find another job, yet you and others sitting around this room will view me differently. I will need workfare, me and my children will need to be punished because we are on the system. Bill 142 is meant to teach me self-reliance. Or will it instead, teach me and my children to hate this government and to hate others who can not see that we are just like others in this province trying to get along from day-to-day. We all had dreams, we all had goals. When I was 18 and being interviewed for my year book I know that I didn't say I would like to be 40 and be on welfare and feel powerless and hated.
I want my children to be able to go to University or College, will that be possible? As a woman living in poverty I'm not sure. Will they end up living in poverty in their adult years? How is my being forced to go thousands of dollars in debt in order to house and feed my children, going to give them a good start? How is forcing me to participate in workfare, going to get me a decent job? I am already looking for full time work, the jobs are not out there. I did not have the benefit of getting into a family business as did Mike Harris and John Snobelen when I was younger.
In conclusion, we would like to say that this legislation is WRONG! There will be no right to appeal. Welfare administrators or their staff will have a variety of new powers: they will be able to walk into our homes or worse yet, cut us off if they "suspect" fraud. "Over payments" that we can't dispute. Liens against our homes, loans for welfare. The welfare office will be able to decide whether you spend your money wisely, or correctly. They will be able to make payments to a third party on your behalf. Slave labour for your meagre cheque. It is morally and ethically wrong to treat people like this.
We could go on and on but it is all WRONG. We would ask that this committee keep this in mind. As you listen to presentations of others today and from the other parts of this province in considering this legislation pleaseremember what we have said. We have spoken from our hearts, from our own personal experiences, and most of all as people who are going to being directly impacted by this horrendous Bill. This is a bill that is disguised as something that is good for all of Ontario, especially the poor on social assistance. Is it really going to get Ontario "back to work" or serve to further humiliate, and disempower the already marginalized in this society? We would like you to see us the way you see yourselves, the only difference is our source of income.