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Editorial / Opinion

Welfare programs fail the neediest

The Toronto Star, (Canada's largest daily newspaper) Aug. 28, 2006

Do you belong to a typical middle-income family of four in Ontario? Then you took in about $80,000 last year. And you no doubt had to make some difficult lifestyle choices. Maybe between investing in a new car or splurging on a vacation. Or buying a plasma TV or braces for one of the kids.

Now try to imagine what your life would have been like trying to make ends meet on less than a quarter of your income. How would you have housed, fed and clothed your family and provided all the other necessities of life on just $19,302? That's just half the poverty line.

If it sounds next to impossible, it is.

Yet that is what an Ontario couple with two children living on welfare receives in benefits. Social assistance in this province has never been adequate. And it has declined for 13 years, eroded by inflation.

It is pretty much the same story across Canada for welfare recipients, about 5 per cent of the population. That includes both employable and disabled singles, and single parent families. In Alberta, Canada's richest province, a person too disabled to work must make do with $7,851 a year. And at the very bottom of the scale, an employable individual on welfare in New Brunswick gets just $3,427.

These statistics, courtesy of the National Council of Welfare's annual report which was released this past week, confirm that Canadians are tolerating a policy that is "shameful and morally unsustainable in a rich country," says council chair John Murphy.

And making Canada's approach all the more disgraceful, so-called welfare reforms in some provinces have "reinforced" public perceptions that social assistance recipients are "lazy and undeserving," the council says. Half the provinces, Ontario included, have even cast children as undeserving, by imposing a welfare clawback on federal benefits aimed at easing child poverty. Children make up almost a third of recipients.

Yet few people want to have to rely on the state for support.

"People are on welfare," the council says, "because they have lost their jobs, are widowed, are separated or divorced and are raising their children alone, are fleeing abusive relationships, or have a disability that prevents them from holding a job."

Canadians pride themselves on being a caring and compassionate society. But when it comes to the least fortunate in our midst children included we are anything but. We fail to provide them with the tools they need to help themselves, in the form of skills training and access to child care. Then we expect them to get along on incomes that don't reach half the poverty line.

How many more council reports will it take for Canadian policy-makers, and the public, to realize that we are all paying a price for this glaring neglect? We pay a steep price, the council points out, "through higher health and justice costs, lost human potential, and the diminished productive capacity of those living in poverty."

The Conservatives and Liberals are fond of paying lip service to the concept of nation-building. It is a staple of our politics. But Canada's foundations will remain morally shaky as long as we continue to neglect those in our midst who most need help.

How to repair the nation's frayed social safety net?

In the first instance, by acknowledging a problem exists.

Then by insisting that Ontario and the other four provinces that have clawed back federal child benefits from welfare families reverse this callous and destructive policy.

Finally, Ottawa and the provinces must begin working together, as they once did under the Canada Assistance Program, to create a coherent national income support program out of the grab bag of provincial welfare and federal income security programs.

Canadians are working hard to establish national standards for health care. We must do the same for welfare.

This country is rich enough to create a coherent national program that provides a decent level of income support to every family in true need. It is past time we recognized that, and acted on it.