Awaiting the Lankin-Sheikh review on social welfare reform

By Pat Watson Wednesday September 12 2012 in Opinion
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The home phone rang Monday morning – some minutes into what for the normal world is the commencement of business hours – just after 9 a.m. Too late to answer the call, it went into voice mail.


The voice of the person who left the message was terse and frosty. The message went something along the following lines:


“Hello Mrs. ‘Smith’, I’m calling from social services and returning your call. I’m Miss ‘Social Worker’, and I’m filling in for your regular caseworker who is away this week. If you were calling about an urgent matter you will have to call me instead at 416-36…”


It was clear that in taking down Mrs. Smith’s phone number someone was in error, and since it could have been a matter of some importance to Mrs. Smith, who was likely waiting for a response, I called Miss Social Worker to let her know about the error.


Miss Social Worker picked up my call, answering with the same surly tone that she had used when leaving the message for Mrs. Smith and continued in this manner even as I explained briefly that she had called my number in error.


“It was impossible,” she said curtly, that she had gotten the number wrong. In the moments after the rather unpleasant exchange ended, I felt bad for Mrs. Smith, who perhaps would eventually connect with this surly social worker. I thought about the depressing feeling of having her humanity further diminished when she is already in a vulnerable situation, receiving social welfare support.


There is a rude stereotype that hangs over persons who face no other option during difficult periods in their life but to apply for social service assistance. We are all familiar with the hurtful, mean-spirited assumptions – lazy, beer-drinking types who are taking in our tax dollars.


But then I tried to understand Miss Social Worker’s tone: Monday morning, likely already burdened with a too large caseload and now she has to take on additional cases since her co-worker was not in for the rest of the week.


Maybe she got into social work because she felt a noble calling to be part of helping to improve the lives of others, but now she is overloaded with too many cases and so much paperwork that she couldn’t do any real social work, having been side-tracked into becoming essentially a paper-pusher.


So there are no “bad guys” here as such, just too few workers and so many clients caught up in a system that is not adequately functioning for optimal worker participation and far too absent of fairness and dignity for those who must turn to Social Services out of necessity.


In July, Ontario Works had 263,411 cases representing 475,363 adults and children, 7,385 fewer people than in July 2011. In addition, at the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) staff are responsible for between 230-380 cases each of approximately 400,000 Ontario recipients, according to the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU). Moreover, the disabilities caseload has been increasing steadily over the past decade, and is currently growing by about five per cent a year.


And one more piece of datum: Ontario’s expenditures for social assistances in 2010-11 totalled $7.1 billion; $6.6 billion or 93 per cent went to welfare recipients in payments and to cover prescription drugs, while $255 million or 3.6 per cent went to administration.


Since late 2010, former United Way Toronto president Frances Lankin and Munir Sheikh, formerly the chief statistician at Statistics Canada; have been tasked by Ontario’s Liberal government with a review of the province’s social assistance program. The final review has been late in arriving and is now expected to be made public this month.


But even before we hear what they have been able to come up with, the two commissioners have already voiced concerns regarding the complexity of the system and the awesome breadth of reform that would be required to make it function efficiently and equitably given the many issues to balance.


They have for months been calling on the public for input on how to correct the system. The question now is whether their recommendations will have merit in the real world of people who turn to social services and those who deliver the service.


A note on the sky falling…


Federal Immigration and Citizenship Minister Jason Kenney is playing the immigration-and-citizenship-fraud card again. Nothing like waving the flag of nationalism to rally the troops, especially after the government’s hasty announcement of the decision to cut off diplomatic relations with Iran.




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