Friday, November 14, 2008

Attaining Support for Transition: How Do We Do It?

Authorities providing social services at the government level whom recognize the short and long term solutions to developing a policy with practices that acknowledge a transition process from social assistance to work, instead of deviantizing those who cannot work by subjecting them to undesirable participation in the labour market with inadequate pay and benefits will be making real change to workfare, making Ontario Works the program that the government of Ontario sets it out to be. Unfortunately, the current workfare system deviantizes those in need of social assistance because it is reflective of the public opinion, an opinion that is shaped by conservative ideology deviantizing those who cannot work, or who come from a cycle of working in low paid jobs. In order for change to happen, it is up to authorities providing social assistance (likely at the community level) to partner with groups receiving social assistance, including those who are recipients of workfare, to brainstorm recommendations for change that are reflective of the long and short term solutions recommended, and reflect the voice of an oppressed group of social service recipients. These focus groups can also come up with an anti-oppressive lens to help de-centre public opinion of those in need of social assistance from a conservative ideology, and develop strategies for consulting the right government officials in order to map where and how concrete change can happen.

In the Metcalf Foundation report, three focus groups were met with in order to assert changes that need to happen to social assistance programs. These changes need to happen across all programs, including Ontario Works, in order to reduce the overlap that further deviantizes and oppresses recipients by reducing the amount of benefits they can receive that they actually need, and in order to maximize the benefits and training that they receive while on Ontario Works. Changes recommended in a focus group from St. Christopher House in Toronto in 2007 required improvements to training and education, housing and homelessness, and minimum wages, assets, and adequacy and included the following:

Training and Education
provide higher benefits to facilitate education,
put greater emphasis on education rather than warehousing people,
provide training for real jobs where there is real work, and
do not limit education to children - allow life-long learning.

Housing and Homelessness
create more affordable housing,
get rid of the shelter system,
stop studying homelessness and do something about it,
build subsidized housing and get rid of boarding houses,
provide grace periods on rental increases when income from other
sources rise (but keep in mind that a grace period would not solve the
underlying problems),
stop very large rent increases when people get jobs, and
stop building ghettos and start building affordable housing that’s spread
out into various communities.

Minimum Wages, Assets, Adequacy
raise minimum wages and social assistance rates,
reduce onerous reporting requirements where one has to “tell their life
story over and over again” to get benefits
reduce excessive paperwork - “They already have more information on
us than we do,”
raise asset limits to $5,000 so that recipients can save money,
create custom solutions that are tailored to the situation that low income
people actually face,
deliver basic benefits through the tax system,
increase basic income tax credits (such as refundable credits),
provide better, more timely information to recipients so they don’t learn
social services rules when their benefits are already being cut off.

In order to start to put these changes into action, focus groups need first to work towards changing public opinion, and shifting it away from a conservative/oppressive lens in order to be able to have any influence at the government level. If governments are to buy into an anti-oppressive plan to improve social assistance, that plan has to reflect public opinion. In order to shape public opinion, focus groups need to look at the conservative ideology shaping public opinion of social assistance recipients as a "welfare cheat" lens and frame the anti-oppressive lens they are fighting for as an "achieving self-sufficiency" lens. Plugging behaviours that workfare recipients do into these frameworks that they often have to do in order to support their transition into the work force will show how public opinion can shift. The following table from the Metcalfe Foundation report looks at 5 deviantized behaviours under a conservative public ideology of welfare and demonstrates how public opinion can shift to an anti-oppressive one if it is re-framed to reflect an "achieving self-sufficiency" lens:

Behaviour: Acquiring a spouse
Welfare Cheat Lens: "She's got a boyfriend"
Achieving Self-Sufficiency Lens: Forming a viable and economic family unit to escape poverty

Behaviour: Help from family
Welfare Cheat Lens: "Getting illicit money."
Achieving Self-Sufficiency Lens: Reinforces role of families helping their own members, helping build a base to escape poverty.

Behaviour: Having a bank account-being seen in a bank.
Welfare Cheat Lens: "Hiding money from the system."
Achieving Self-Sufficiency Lens: Returning to normalcy, building assets, demonstrating money-management skills, building a base to excape poverty.

Behaviour: Getting a job
Welfare Cheat Lens: "Working and not reporting it - working under the table"
Achieving Self-Sufficiency Lens: "The first major building block in becoming self-sufficient and returning to normalcy and becoming self-sufficient.

Behaviour: Spending on non-necessities.
Welfare Cheat Lens: "How can they afford that if they are supposed to be poor?"
Achieving Self-Sufficiency Lens: Returning to normalcy - taking responsibility for a household budget - making choices for better or worse - weighing risk and responsibility consistent with adult behaviour.

With a shift in public opinion in place away from a conservative ideology that deviantizes citizens who are recipients of workfare, real policy change to acknowledge the transition out of social assistance and into a job can take place at the government level. Recommendations from focus groups made of service recipients, agencies, boards, and commissions can be brought to government attention as the government either directly (through municipalities) or indirectly (through mandates placed on 'external' funders) fund agency programs. Since no agency wants to "bite the hand that feeds it," agencies need to take on the client centred approach in order to fight for changes on behalf of workfare recipients. Out of a client centred-approach, larger goals that tackle some of the short and long term solutions to recognize a transition process out of workfare (i.e ensuring that all agencies, programs, policies etc have common definitions of groups to prevent overlap that reduces benefits to be received between services) can be recommended by agencies to Service Canada and the Ontario Ministry of Government Services. This will ensure that favourable people-centred government policies will always be on the table during policy discussions at this level. As long as these policy discussions stay on the table and reflect public opinion (as shifted through focus groups), real change can be enacted with buy-in from finance ministers who budget such changes in social services, and most importantly, the Premier, whom has the final authority if structural reform is to take place.

Recommendations for acknowledging the transition from workfare to work obtained from: “Why is it so Tough to Get Ahead? How Our Tangled Social Programs Pathologize the Transition to Self-Reliance.” John Stapleton, Metcalfe Foundation: Toronto, 2007.

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