Friday, November 7, 2008

The Impact of Workfare on Health: Part One

What elements would you say are our most basic determinants of good health? Food? Water? Shelter? Clothing? Feeling valued? I would wager a guess that the answer to that question would equate to an age old cliche: "all of the above." Nevertheless, these factors most certainly equalize our ability to live our lives free from physical duress. But who helps who IN TIMES of duress? What if the members of a family can't support each other, and therefore cannot provide the aforementioned factors? Who will step in to provide assistance? In a fair and just society, one would think the people that run the show, a.k.a., those in government. But like we've said before, if the government DOES step in, it doesn't mean the answer is going to be a good one. Sometimes the response is poorly implemented. With regard to our health and well-being, what do you think Workfare says about the belief systems of those who implemented it? What does it say about their ideology? Perhaps that our governments (not all) are kind of "socialist," in nature. What this means is the idea that: "Don't worry, we'll take care of you because you'll use our ideas. You give us your trust and your earnings and we'll take care of you." Maybe workfare says that our leaders feel we should be able to take care of our own health, regardless of our circumstances ~ forgetting that our health is contingent on being able to support ourselves with the basic necessities of life.

In the past 20 years, a lot of people have railed against the changes that have been made to our policies regarding financial assistance. These policies undoubtedly affect our health and well-being. We've got the "Marginalized Worker's Action League," an organization of unemployed individuals, "marginally employed" workers and students who came together in 1997 to pressure our government institutions to initiate fairer assistance programs (ones that steer far away from the "blame the victim" mantra ~ I realize the irony in using another cliche). Then we've got the "Society for the Promotion of Human rights in Employment," which also came together in 1997 and focuses on promoting "awareness, understanding and respect for our fundamental human rights (one of which is the prohibition of forced labour)." These are crucial steps toward standing up and saying: "Wait a minute, these programs aren't right, they are not working. We need a better way!" It seems like getting the people involved who desperately need financial assistance in the policy development would be a worthwhile option. The heads of two groups are better than one, right?

The "Ontario Public Health Association," or OPHA, as it is commonly referred to as, strives to promote the social and physical wellness of everyone in the province. As such, it pays special attention to the policies that our government leaders implement and advocates for change. Some of the recommendations it has made in the past include: voluntary participation in workfare programs, appropriate training and job placements, as well as the access to government-funded support services (which would include but is not limited to transportation and adequate childcare services). One thing that OPHA has tried to point out in their literature is that typically, social assistance has been provided through two avenues: general welfare assistance and family benefits (this would mean individuals with dependent children). When the province of Ontario elected the conservative government in 1995, it reduced social assistance benefits by 21 per cent. What came after was Ontario Works, a mandatory workfare program for those receiving social assistance.

What the heck is the message with all this rambling? It's simple: the writing is on the wall. Yes, it's true, yet another cliche. The point is that the impact left by workfare has been felt and felt big time. An area of our lives impacted hugely by this policy is the health and well-being of the citizens who have used it. A number of grass roots organizations are continuing to fight the inequalities that exist in these ways. So it's there, the work is being done to try and equalize the financial assistance that is allotted to Canadian citizens. However, one key factor that needs to be kept in mind is that while there are innumerable people who desperately need adequate assistance in getting back on their feet, there is also a "population" of people in our country who remain, and will always remain, "unemployable." Managers speak to this fact all the time; companies have tried to participate in no avail. Not in every single case, but many where an employee was chronically late, sick, or refused to show up. It certainly makes things harder on the people who need "something" to get them back to a place where they can manage their lives independently.

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