“We hold people in poverty with our rules…”

Jenny's picture

Such were the words of National Council of Welfare Chairperson John Rook at the news conference launching the NCW’s recent report Welfare Incomes 2009. Indeed, if one word could be used to summarize the NCW’s assessment of our current social assistance programs it would likely be ‘counterproductive’. In both the news conference and the report the NCW repeatedly emphasized the fact that the current welfare system is “the perfect trap.”

The National Council of Welfare is an arm’s length body that advises the Minister of Human Resources and Social Development on issues pertaining to poverty. The NCW has been producing reports on a variety of poverty topics since its inception in 1969. As such, it is uniquely positioned to provide authoritative statements on the state of poverty in Canada.

Welfare Incomes 2009, released December 13, revealed that the need to strip most of one’s assets in order to receive welfare is a particular problem in Canada. The report states that “[a]sset stripping not only impoverishes people before they qualify for welfare, but it also limits their ability to climb the welfare wall to get out of the welfare trap.”

Meanwhile, as Canadians rid themselves of their assets in order to receive government support, that very same support is completely inadequate to cover the current cost of living. Benefits are usually a smaller percentage of the after-tax Low Income Cut Off. Basically, the persistent myth that people on welfare are simply leeching off the harder working members of society is completely false. Nobody on welfare is getting a “free ride.”

As Joe Gunn, Executive Director of CPJ commented “we make people fall almost to penury in order to receive welfare, and we then pay them less than they need to survive, and make it next to impossible to exit poverty because we have stripped them of all social assets necessary to allow someone to overcome this dire situation.”

We need to ask ourselves what exactly the goals of current programs are. The NCW defines welfare as “the social safety net of last resort in Canada.” Although it is generally held to be a (hopefully temporary) measure to help people get back on their feet again, clearly it is wildly ineffective at lifting people out of poverty. This is a dangerous and troublesome inefficiency for Canada to sustain. A person in poverty is a person who cannot fully participate in society. They are a person who is much more likely to have health problems requiring publicly-financed remedies. A person in poverty is unlikely to have any savings which allow them to retire comfortably. Rather, they will continue to rely on the system until their passing. They are a person who is more likely to have children who also have health problems, lower education levels, and are extremely likely to also live in poverty, thereby perpetuating the cycle. All of these symptoms mean that it is extremely costly for Canada to have anyone living in poverty.

If we want those currently being supported by the system to stop being a “drain” on “good, hardworking folks” the best thing we can do is put structures in place which do not hold people down, but rather lift them out of poverty. This requires a shift in Canadian thinking and, indeed, a shift in the current rules of our welfare systems. As one of the speakers at the news conference pointed out, we need to go from a mentality of dependence, to a mentality of investment. By creating and implementing such programs we are investing in Canada’s future and building a country we can all be proud of.

National Council of Welfare’s official press release can also be accessed here.

Jenny Prosser is CPJ’s former policy intern.

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