Social Assistance That Really Helps

Commentary, Poverty, Larry Gregan

When Manitoba’s NDP government rolled out its new plan for social assistance, “Rewarding Work,” my first response was positive. But experience has taught me not to roll out the welcome mat too quickly. Change is hard. Assistance is harder. We must be careful to avoid political hype and ask, “Will the new plan really help?”

The morning I heard about it, I was driving my son to his grandparents for childcare. I saw a transit ad that gave me a front-row seat on the economy of our province: the sign announced that Winnipeg’s beer distributors are hiring. It was good to see that employees are in demand. But all cannot be well, I thought, if they have to resort to bus ads to find them.

Then a morning radio show cut to a job fair, which extended an open invitation for people to train to drive the bus in front of me. With a reported 14,000 employable people on social assistance in Manitoba, Winnipeg Transit is taking the initiative to find drivers.

Nothing challenges you more than the vulnerability and demands of parenting. I am a middle-aged father of children aged four and two, and my wife and I started late. OK, I started late. The standing joke in our household is that it takes three adults to raise two children, but we only have two.

I am blessed to be well supported in this effort. My wife and I inherited a legacy of positive family values and relative relational health. We are professionals and resourceful. We walk in a faith community that calls out the best in us, and draws upon grace to evoke it. And we have the love, forgiveness, and resilience of our precious children. Even then, it is still hard work.

So it is good, indeed, that our society should support those who may have more to overcome with less to draw upon. The provisions of “Rewarding Work” are a noble attempt to do that. But there are three hurdles we will eventually have to jump in order to make this support effective.

The first hurdle is in the benefit package itself. The irony in these benefits is that the freedom from welfare and the freedom to work which they attempt to provide are all tied to participation in the welfare system. Don’t get me wrong. Childcare, training time, health benefits and fewer claw-backs are all good things. But if we are seeking true freedom from the grip of the system, we will have to locate these benefits outside that system.

Here’s one example. Recently the minimum wage in Manitoba increased by forty cents per hour. Matching that increase for the staff at our non-profit café will cost us $5,200 per year. We would feel a lot better about that if we could be confident that the increase will actually make our staff better off. But how much of that money will flow back into the Province’s coffers?

If we are really serious about encouraging low-income people to take risks to enjoy the benefits of work, why are we shying away from simply raising the basic personal exemption on their taxes? Why do we insist that all the incentive to grow away from the system perversely be located within the system? It doesn’t make an ounce of sense.

The second hurdle lies with all of us who support people on assistance, whether by taxes or advocacy. If these benefits are going to be effective, we are going to have to distinguish issues clearly enough not to be scared away by the false charge of favouring the “deserving poor.”

Case workers must be politically supported in directing these benefits to those who are making effective use of them. Other kinds of assistance, like addiction treatment, are of higher priority for those unwilling or not yet able to take advantage of these benefits. Case workers need to be personally supported by their managers because assessing that difference is a challenge. It requires a relationship with recipients, more than just being a gatekeeper and cutting a cheque.

We have to be willing to ask whether we are enabling strategies by persistently dependent people not to change. That does not mean we become more suspicious of poor people; it means we become more suspicious of ourselves. We can exercise good judgments about people’s actions without being cast as judgmental Dickensian villains.

The third hurdle lies with the very people these benefits propose to help, those on social assistance.

Those on social assistance know how difficult it is on some days to believe that they can make a difference. But I have seen many people turn around their own lives and the lives of their families by realizing that they, and only they, can make a difference. It’s fine to give others credit for assistance, but you shouldn’t let them take credit for your change.

The decision to make the most of this assistance is a difference that only they can make, in the knowledge that a lot of people are rooting for them even if they stumble along the way. By all means, let’s help. But let’s offer the help in a context that has a chance to succeed.