. . . . .
By Jane Smith & Jacquie Chic
The horrific failure of the computer system, which was designed to manage Ontario's social assistance caseload, has brought to light the agenda of the Conservative government defeated in last year's provincial election.It was that government's unmistakable goal to dramatically reduce social assistance spending by preventing people from receiving assistance, cutting off those already on the system and slashing the already woefully inadequate rates to unlivable levels. The underlying theme was that people "chose" poverty because it is easier than working.
The computer system was designed to achieve these ends.
The jury presiding over the inquest into the death of Kimberly Rogers spent two months hearing from about Rogers' life and death and the reality of life on welfare. The evidence didn't square with the stereotypes advanced by governments seeking a rationale for keeping social assistance rates at dangerously low levels.
Rogers lived in desperate poverty. She was under house arrest for welfare fraud. She collected student loans while receiving welfare at a time when she was a full-time college student. She was also banned from receiving welfare for three months and lost her drug card.Rogers had been prescribed medication for a range of health issues that prevented her from working. She died trying to fight her way out of poverty.
Rogers was eight months pregnant at the time of her death. The jury saw through the stereotypes about poor people and made 14 thoughtful recommendations aimed at preventing future deaths in similar circumstances.The McGuinty government accepted the jury's recommendation that it eliminate the ban on receiving social assistance when someone is convicted of welfare fraud. It deserves credit for taking that step.
However, the jury also recommended that social assistance rates reflect the actual costs of housing and basic needs within each community. Instead, the government announced that rates would go up a mere 3 per cent.For a single parent with one child receiving Ontario Works, this is an additional $28.71 a month - barely enough for a pair of shoes, or milk and diapers.
The jury was presented with the truth about life on social assistance. A single person on Ontario Works receives $195 to cover food, utilities, transportation and other necessities and $325 for rent, for a total of $520. The average rent for a bachelor apartment in Toronto in 2003 was $731. One-bedroom units averaged $884.Witness upon witness spoke of the impossibility of searching for work, let alone finding it, while daily facing choices between eating and paying the rent. Or the constant threat of the Children's Aid Society taking away kids because people in dire straits could not provide for them.
Often without a phone where a prospective employer can contact them, people receiving social assistance are routinely passed over in favour of applicants who reflect middle-class norms.The government has also said that, contrary to the jury's recommendation, it will not provide adequate housing, food and medication to those under house arrest.
It has also failed to implement a recommendation that drug benefits be continued during any suspension of social assistance benefits.And it has thwarted a jury proposal that it develop guidelines to assess whether welfare fraud allegations should be referred to police only after an evaluation of the life circumstances of the accused. Instead, Queen's Park has insisted that all suspected cases of fraud be referred to the police.
Jurors are charged with the weighty responsibility of sifting through the evidence and making recommendations designed to prevent future deaths.What purpose is served in holding inquests if jury recommendations can be routinely rejected on the basis of dollars and cents? Jurors cannot prevent future deaths if they are told we can't afford to implement their recommendations.
Individuals don't choose poverty. Governments do. The creation and perpetuation of poverty by government can only lead to further deaths. If the Rogers inquest jury learned anything, it is that poverty kills.Fixing the computer system is not enough. As we approach the third anniversary of Rogers' death, the government must act quickly and meaningfully in order that not another person dies as a result of poverty. That's something we truly can't afford.
Jane Smith was a juror in the Kimberly Rogers inquest. Jacquie Chic is the director of advocacy and legal services at the Income Security Advocacy Centre, which represented two groups at the inquest.
Related Articles on prisonjustice.ca: