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Ontario NDP losing its voice on minimum wage

Tuesday, March 4th, 2014

“When it came to issues affecting the most marginalized in our society, including the working poor, the NDP was once a prophetic voice in Ontario politics. Sadly, that voice now speaks in whispers.”

Read my latest op-ed for The Toronto Star here

Poverty, Protest and Power from Below

Friday, December 28th, 2012

A friend recently sent me a cartoon depicting two workers in conversation: One says to the other, “Remember when nurses, teachers, municipal workers and poor people crashed the economy and took billions in bonuses and bailouts?” “No”, his buddy responds; “Me neither” nods the first.

If we’ve learnt anything from the economic crisis and Great Recession it’s that big business and their friends in government are brilliantly adept at blaming the victim. And through their control of the corporate media and power to shape and influence public debate, elites have been successful at convincing many of our fellow citizens that public sector workers, unions, and the poor are indeed to blame for the economic mess created by Wall Street and Bay Street, the big banks and high flying financiers.

With cuts to social programs and the assault on unions, ordinary people are being made to pay for a crisis that is not of their making. In the meantime, cor­porations continue to benefit from large tax cuts and sit on piles of cash. The rich escape tax in­creases and park their wealth in offshore accounts while public libraries close, teachers’ wages are frozen, and the poor struggle to put food on the table, avoid eviction, and cope with the daily grind of life on a low income.

Employers have used the crisis to restructure workplaces, increasing in­security for the majority of working people. Keeping workers in fear of being replaced is one method by which bosses maintain a quiescent and com­pliant workforce. Creating precarious jobs—such as temp work that is difficult to unionize under our ar­chaic labour laws—is another. The post-recession jobs recovery has seen pre-recession full-time work replaced with part-time, temporary, and other precarious forms of employment. Quiet workers make for big profits and happy employers.

Governments have used the crisis and resulting budget deficits as an excuse to roll back the hard fought gains of the labour movement. Both Harper and McGuinty have passed or threatened to pass back-to-work legislation to stop workers from exercising their rights to bargain collectively or to go on strike to defend their wages and working conditions. Weakened unions hamper the labour movement’s traditional role as a counterweight to the influence of big business on government.

Workers on welfare or disability have also been under attack. The Ontario government’s poverty re­duction plan has been put on hold. While McGuinty has raised welfare rates, these increases have not even kept up with inflation. If welfare was to be returned to pre-Harris Conservatives levels, the govern­ment would have to raise rates by close to 60 per cent. In addition, anti-poverty measures such as the Ontario Child Benefit have been cut.

So the next few years, and likely the next decade, look tough for all working class Ontarians, but especially for those already living near or below the poverty line; those who were vulnerable prior to the Great Recession are made even more vulnerable since. Low-income Ontarians are confronting fewer child-care subsidies, extended waiting lists for social housing, and persistent unemployment and underemployment. More people than ever are caught in the dire dilemma of whether to feed the kids or pay the rent. Changes to employ­ment standards and labour law, which could create the conditions to lift people out of poverty, are derided as “unfriendly to business”.

How then do we make gains in a climate of auster­ity? Confronted with the resources of the rich and pow­erful, how do we mobilize power from below to defend our past victories and fight for social justice?

We should look to history for guidance. In the 1930s and 40s, Canadian workers went on strike for union recognition and better wages and working conditions. In 1943 alone, one in three workers engaged in strike action. Unemployed workers set out to march on Ottawa to demand they be treated with dignity and respect. Those struggles led to the legiti­mization of unions, the construction of the welfare state, and a greater share of society’s wealth going to ordinary folks.

In the 1960s, unions and anti-poverty organizations pushed for the expansion of social programs and lessened in­equality. They marched, they protested, they made noise.

In the mid-1980s, anti-poverty, labour and women’s groups mobilized to influence the direction of the provincial Liberal-NDP coalition government. Poor people’s marches snaked through three of Ontario’s largest cities. The end result was a 25 per cent increase in welfare rates and the humanization of many aspects of a stigmatizing and punitive system.

History shows us that our silence will be met with government inaction. As American academics Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward put it in their classic book Regulating the Poor, “A placid poor get nothing, but a turbulent poor sometimes get something.”

We may not control great riches or other sources of power like the police and the military, but we do have the power to refuse to go along with agendas of the elites. Society’s ability to function requires that stu­dents go to classes, tenants pay their rent, workers do their jobs, and the poor remain quiet and polite. If we decide not to cooperate, not to go to classes, to with­hold our rent, to occupy welfare offices, or withhold our labour, we can exercise power from below. But we can’t do these things without organization. That’s why it’s more important than ever to join organizations like Peel Poverty Action Group and collectively defend our past victories and work toward building a better, more just world.

 

Published as “How the Powerless Can Win” in the Fall 2012 edition of the Tough Times community newspaper

Why people on welfare are poor (and why the rich like it that way)

Friday, August 3rd, 2012

Who benefits from a miserly welfare system in which social assistance rates are set below the poverty line? Ontario’s Social Assistance Review Commission has heard from hundreds of social assistance recipients and anti-poverty activists and they have all said the same thing: welfare is broken and needs to be fixed. Rates are too low, rules are too punitive, and the system does more to punish than to help the poor. Yet for government and their rich friends, the welfare system is doing exactly what it was designed to do.

Poor relief, as welfare was originally called, was never designed to be a benevolent handout to the poor. From its roots in England’s Poor Laws through to the Harris Conservative’s social assistance reforms of the mid-90s, welfare has operated on the principle of “less eligibility.” The historic 1834 report on Britain’s Poor Laws, issued at the behest of King William IV, stated: “The first and most essential of all conditions, a principle which we find universally ad mitted, even by those whose practice is at variance with it, is, that his (the relief recipient’s) situation on the whole shall not be made really or apparently so eligible (i.e., desirable) as the situation of the independent labourer of the lowest class.”

Over 150 years later, the logic remains: The recipient of social assistance should never be better off than the lowest paid wage worker in the labour market. This is exactly what Mike Harris had in mind when his government introduced workfare and cut welfare rates by 21.6 per cent, and why the McGuinty government has done so little to reverse these changes. Since the early 1990s, Ontario’s labour market has been characterized by the growth and persistence of low wage and insecure jobs, or “precarious employment.” One in six workers in the province is making a poverty wage. Whether employed part-time in the fast-food industry or working as a security guard through a temp agency, the growing ranks of the working poor live in a world of labour market insecurity. Many workers cycle between low-wage employment and periods on social assistance, as they don’t often have the hours required to qualify for employment insurance.

Business needs these workers to maintain the low-wage-big-profits model of the “Wal-Mart economy” in which the rich get richer and the poor get dead end jobs. And governments across the country are in no mood to provide decent jobs through an expansion of public sector employment, or reverse the deregulation of labour markets that they’ve so vigorously pursued. With these shifting trends in employment, welfare functions to ensure a cheap and flexible workforce to populate the lower reaches of the province’s labour market. To paraphrase University of British Columbia professor Jamie Peck, welfare today is not about creating jobs for people who don’t have them but about creating workers for jobs nobody wants.

Miserly benefit levels, restrictive eligibility criteria and the ritualized stigmatization of those who must navigate the administrative maze that is welfare, are all in keeping with the government’s desire to ensure a job at any wage, under any conditions, remains prefer able to the receipt of social assistance. The province’s tooth-and-nail fight to keep social assistance recipients from having greater access to the special diet program (which they may do away with altogether) is only the latest manifestation of maintaining the principle of less eligibility.

So the rich benefit from a system that pushes the poor into low-wage jobs. Low wages mean bigger profits for those who own and control the majority of wealth. And employed workers who see the treatment doled out to those on social assistance think twice about leaving a bad job for welfare. So what are poor people and their allies to do when faced with a welfare system designed to do more damage than good? Well, the first thing we can do is join organizations like Peel Poverty Action Group (PPAG) and fight like hell to better the system and our lives. Our collective strength is greater than that of any one individual. Second, we need to work with our partners in the labour movement to ensure that all jobs are good jobs with living wages. Together we can ensure that both the welfare system and the labour market provide economic security and dignity. Only then will we have a system that benefits the rest of us and not the rich.

 

Published in Tough Times Summer 2012

 

Unsung Heroes of the Third City

Tuesday, December 27th, 2011

2011 will be remembered as the year when inequality moved from the margins to the mainstream of public discourse. No longer just the purview of anti-poverty activists, progressive economists and the political left, this year figures as unlikely as Finance Minister Jim Flaherty and Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney felt pushed to publicly acknowledge the widening gap between the rich and the rest, or as the Occupy movement has put it: the 1 per cent and the 99.

In Ontario, the loss of high-paying manufacturing jobs, the growth of precarious employment, the dismantling of the social safety net, and the weakening of a trade union movement that once was a strong force for a more egalitarian society have allowed inequality and poverty to grow relatively unchecked for close to three decades. The idea that free markets and globalization deliver prosperity for all has been thoroughly debunked by the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression. Prosperity has been concentrated in the hands of too few at the expense of too many.

And as report after report has concluded, our city has not been immune from these socio-economic trends. As researchers at the University of Toronto’s Cities Centre have documented, over the last 30 years Toronto has become a greatly unequal place, segregated by income into three distinct cities:

City #1 consists of the richer and whiter downtown core and the well-heeled neighbourhoods that abut the city’s subway lines.

Toronto’s middle-income neighbourhoods make up City #2, shrinking in size as we become a more socially and economically polarized metropolis. The number of high-poverty neighbourhoods in Toronto has more than quadrupled since 1980.

City #3 — or the Third City — is made up of Toronto’s low-income neighbourhoods, with their high concentrations of racialized poverty. Generally found in the northeastern and northwestern parts of Toronto, incomes in these “inner” suburbs have declined 20 per cent or more since 1970.

While we have become accustomed to thinking of Toronto’s Third City geographically, as particular areas and neighbourhoods, the Third City can also be understood as an urban condition: a set of experiences that together amount to exclusion from the full political, economic and cultural life of our city. For instance, living in the Third City means not having enough money to take your children to the zoo or museum; it is having to choose between feeding the kids and paying the rent; it is commuting two hours to work on inadequate public transit; it is being denied a job because of your accent, the colour of your skin, or your postal code; it is being charged exorbitant interest rates by payday lenders; it is being denied access to channels of political influence for lack of resources and excluded from civic debates.

Cuts to public transit, child care, recreation centres, libraries and community grants stand to exacerbate this exclusion. People living on low incomes cannot afford to purchase equivalent goods and services on the market — things like private child care or nursery school, owning and operating a car, fitness club memberships or summer camps for kids.

No Toronto neighbourhood has become more associated with the Third City than Jane-Finch. But behind the negative media headlines and dire poverty statistics, there are people working hard to stitch together a social fabric torn by decades of rising poverty and inequality. They are the unsung heroes of the Third City, the people and organizations we hear little about.

Women like Stephanie Payne, the indefatigable matriarch of Jane-Finch who heads up the San Romanoway Revitalization Association (SRRA). The association’s work has led to the renewal of an apartment complex long stigmatized for its association with crime and poor living conditions. Payne and the staff at the SRRA provide programs for isolated seniors, recreation for community youth, and gang-prevention initiatives.

While she is haunted by the deaths of too many of the community’s young men, Payne carries on her work emboldened by positive results as reports find crime in the complex has declined and residents’ quality of life has improved. “This is a dynamic community and people come together when good things are happening,” Payne reflects. “But when I look at the budgets and see this program and that program have to be discontinued, I think what am I going to do with the youngsters out there, are they going to be back on the corner? If they don’t have our supports, they will be back out there. That’s what I worry about.”

Organizations such as Lost Lyrics face the same uncertainty. Lost Lyrics is an alternative education program that uses hip hop culture to reach students who struggle in the mainstream education system and are often labelled as having behavioural issues. Working out of a Jane-Finch community centre, the organization has successfully bridged the streets and the classroom, empowering young people to change their lives and critically engage the world around them. But as Lost Lyrics co-founder Amanda Parris puts it: “under this mayor, our access to resources is steadily shrinking. Our programs are in a precarious position and our capacity to sustain them is riddled with question marks.”

Christopher Penrose runs another highly successful Jane-Finch program, Success Beyond Limits, which provides summer programs, peer tutoring, and co-op opportunities for local youth. He has seen the city’s budget plans and warns: “As things are right now, pre-cuts, there’s not enough. Not enough for programming, to address all the issues our youth face. . . .

“We’ve been to funerals, we deal with youth who have lost people, we deal with young people who come to school hungry. We see the effects of poverty on a daily basis. It’s traumatic. Now we are being re-traumatized by politicians who negate our experiences, making decisions that are going to lead to more poverty, more hardship. It is more than just frustrating; it is hurtful to see the direction this city is going.”

Jade Lee Hoy, an outreach coordinator with community arts organization Manifesto, another Jane-Finch mainstay, echoes Penrose’s frustrations, “When you cut these programs, we are losing talent, opportunity and energies that could be vital to our city.” Lee Hoy notes that neighbourhoods like Jane-Finch are vibrant and resilient places with a strong sense of community despite the many challenges they face.

The likes of Payne, Parris, Lee Hoy and Penrose are people whose intelligence, drive and ingenuity could earn them the big bucks on Bay Street. But they don’t migrate to corporate Canada. Instead, they work daily to cobble together grant applications, counsel the vulnerable and uplift a community. They work to mitigate the effects of poverty and marginalization. And they do so with meagre budgets, little compensation, and an abiding frustration with governments’ lack of commitment to social justice and progressive change.

Of course they reap rewards as well: the joy experienced when a troubled youth turns their life around, the deep sense of fulfillment gained when mentees grow to become mentors, the satisfaction earned watching the transformation of those deemed “at-risk” into those understood by community, peers and parents alike to be empowered. They do this work out of love; love for their community and ultimately love for our city.

As philosopher Cornel West has said, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” With cuts to city services and social programs looming on the political horizon, we are about to see just how much love our city has for neighbourhoods like Jane-Finch.

Published in The Toronto Star Dec 23 2011

Discussing the UK riots on DisRespect Radio

Thursday, September 15th, 2011

Thanks to host Geoff Langhorne for inviting me on DisRespect Radio to discuss the UK riots. We had a great conversation that covered the sources of urban unrest and the prospects for future riots in the UK and beyond. Here’s a link to the podcast. 

1763-1-disRSept1LondonRiotsVol1to58m50.mp3

Resisting Prisons, Rebuilding Communities

Friday, July 8th, 2011

The hunger strike staged by thousands of California prison inmates (check July 8’s Babylon Bite) has brought the hidden world of incarceration back to the front-pages of the news and hopefully back into public consciousness. In Canada, the Harper Conservatives will be pushing their ‘tough on crime’ agenda which will lead to a dramatic expansion of Canada’s prison population in the near future. It’s time we seriously rethink the roll prisons play in our society.

Prison statistics from the U.S. make for depressing reading. After 30 years of a failed ‘War on Drugs’ and consecutive ‘tough on crime’ bills passed at the state and federal levels (by morally challenged Republicans and spineless Democrats alike), the number of people incarcerated in the U.S. prison system has reached 2.2 million. This represents 20% of the world’s total prison population. In the past two decades, the US prison population has risen by 400%.  68% of the prison population are people of colour, primarily Blacks and Latinos. 4 million ex-inmates face barriers to jobs, housing, public assistance, and parental rights. In total, the US government spends $50 billion per year on the prison system (for more stats check Critical Resistance).

Before you get too comfortably righteous in your Canadian skin, consider this:  In Canada, less than 10% of the population live below the poverty line but close to 100% of our prison inmates come from that 10%. Aboriginals are 4% of Canada’s population but 20% of the population of federal prisons. More than 70% of prison inmates have not completed high school and 70% have unstable job histories.

Apart from the social and psychological damage of incarceration to communities, individuals, and families, Canadians spend more than $147,000 per prisoner in federal custody each year. It would take between $12,000 to $20,000 per year to bring a person in Canada above the poverty line (depending on where they live).  We could save $127,000 per year by providing social and economic security to poor people, rather than using prison as method of social control. According to Hugh Segal “If governments become tough on poverty, safer communities and declining prison populations will follow.” Segal is no left-wing pinko anti-prison activist, he’s a Conservative Senator. The quote and statistics above are from a report he issued last year on the relationship between prisons, poverty and crime. Segal concluded that the practice of mass incarceration, through tough on crime measures, has little to no effect on crime rates. Poverty reduction, on the other hand, does (Because the rich get richer, and the poor get prison, very few white-collar criminals find themselves behind bars. In fact much of the anti-social activities of the rich, from speculating on Third World food prices on the stock market to avoiding paying decent wages and accounting for the costs of environmental degradation, are postively encouraged by our economic system in the name of growth and prosperity).Prisons in modern societies have become nothing but warehouses for the socially excluded and marginalized who don’t fit the requirements of a globalized capitalist economy.

What we’ve seen in the US and Canada over the past 30 years is a shift from a welfare state to a penal state. The welfare state are those programs we all rely on to keep us healthy and economically secure, things like public health care, public pensions for security in old age, social housing for those who cannot afford housing on the market, and social assistance for those who experience long-term unemployment, and so on. Governments at all levels have cut back on these programs, making life more insecure for many, not just the poor. The rise of precarious employment (temporary jobs, low-wage part-time, and self-employment) has meant that more and more of us are not able to secure a decent standard of living through work, hence the rise of the working poor and the persistence of poverty.  The US government has rolled back the welfare state and rolled out the penal state, as prisons become the place to house those who are poor, jobless, stigmatized and marginalized. This agenda will intensify with Stephen Harper’s plan to emulate the American model of mass incarceration. We will need to resist this agenda in our communities (if the hunger-strike in California is anything to go by, resistance could start on the inside).

In her book “Are Prisons Obsolete?” long-time anti-prison activist Angela Davis asks “How can we imagine a society in which race and class are not primary determinants of punishment? Or one in which punishment is no longer the central concern in the making of justice?” If we are to resist prisons and rebuild communities, we must be prepared to pose alternatives to incarceration. And as Davis urges, this is not about replacing prisons with prisonlike substitutes like electronic monitoring but rather envisioning an “alternative to imprisonment –  the demilitarization of schools, revitalization of education at all levels, a health system that provides free physical and mental care to all, and a justice system based on reparation and reconciliation rather than retribution and vengeance.” In other words, building an alternative to prisons involves transforming institutions and attitudes at the very core of our society.

In Canada, aboriginal peoples are leading the way with new models of restorative justice, an alternative to the ‘justice’ administered by the Canadian state; a state which has locked up so many of their brothers and sisters after years of colonialism has torn the social fabric of their communities. If we are to build an anti-prison movement that can combat the Harper agenda, building solidarity with aboriginal communities, while listening and learning, would be a good place to start.

Published July 8th 2011 on POUND (http://www.poundmag.com/blogs/resisting-prisons-rebuilding-communities/)

Remixing urban education

Sunday, January 30th, 2011

In my latest op-ed on urban issues for The Toronto Star, I discuss the legacy of a little-known urban arts program that developed a number of Canada’s finest hip hop and Rn’B artists. 

Rappers Kardinal Offishal and Saukrates, singer Jully Black, and video director Lil’ X may not be familiar names to Torontonians over the age of 40, but anyone born after 1969 who loves hip hop and R and B is aware of these artists’ foundational roles in Canada’s urban music culture.

Beyond their shared talents, what these names have in common is a little-known initiative of Ontario’s NDP government: a program called Fresh Arts. Fresh Arts was developed under the umbrella of JobsOntario Youth, part of the larger JobsOntario training and employment program the NDP government introduced to address the labour market fallout of the early ’90s recession.

Fresh Arts attracted young people of colour from areas the City now designates as ‘priority neighbourhoods.’ Then, like today, these neighbourhoods were characterized by large immigrant populations, racialized poverty, and high unemployment; most strikingly, youth unemployment.

Staffed by dedicated community activists, Fresh Arts paired mentors from theatre, music and the visual arts with ambitious young artists whose styles and talents were marginalized both by their lack of economic resources and an arts sector that failed to reflect Toronto’s cultural diversity. It was in Fresh Arts that Toronto’s budding urban talents accessed the funding, education, and networks necessary to propel them to successful careers and years of ambassadorship for the city.

Part of the impetus for Fresh Arts was the Stephen Lewis Report on Race Relations in Ontario. The report was commissioned by then-premier Bob Rae following the Yonge Street Riot of May 1992, when simmering tensions between black youth and Toronto police reached a boiling point. According to Rae, the riot “served to remind everyone that there were systemic problems that were not being addressed.”

Lewis documented the social exclusion faced, particularly, by black youth in Toronto and throughout Ontario. Yet like other efforts to address systemic racism that stemmed from the Report (such as the Anti-Racism Secretariat), Fresh Arts fell victim to Mike Harris’s ‘Common Sense Revolution.’ Harris ended JobsOntario Youth, and with it, Fresh Arts.

The spirit of the now legendary program lives on in the Remix Project, a community arts hub which provides space for Toronto’s new generation of urban artists to flourish. Remix participants come primarily from the City’s Priority Neighbourhoods.

Once accepted into Remix, participants are matched with an established mentor who guides them through an intensive program which helps them earn credits toward a high school diploma, apply for post-secondary education and scholarships, or access start-up money for small business projects.

Remix ran on a modest budget until 2005, when Toronto’s ‘Summer of the Gun’ led to increased funding from both the federal and municipal governments, and various foundations. Since then, however, government funding has been minimal, and Remix has had to rely on the goodwill of individual donors and foundations to survive.

With over 200 graduates now making their way in the urban arts sector, Remix has improved the lives of some of the city’s most vulnerable youth. As one recent graduate told me, “Remix showed me the right path when I was in a dark place…the program gives us the opportunity to see another way for our lives. We’re not treated like charity cases, but respected by our peers.”

As the dominance of market logic eclipses social citizenship, programs like Remix are forced to depend on private and charitable sector partnerships to survive. Ultimately, this is what separates a program like Remix from one like Fresh Arts, and charity from social justice.

Although it had minimal funding, mostly from the government, Fresh Arts was grounded in the belief that young people from marginalized communities should have access to resources that better their lives—by virtue of social rights, not the tenuous goodwill of private individuals and corporate philanthropy.

Remix’s funding is neither stable nor predictable, which makes long-term planning difficult.

Indeed, as policy wonks trumpet the idea of the ‘creative city’ and the economic benefits of a vibrant cultural sector, it’s confounding why projects like Remix should have to struggle for every dollar. The city and the province must do more to support such proven successes.

Yet visions of what we can achieve collectively through government are threatened by promises of cutbacks and ‘tax savings’. As the latest city budget demonstrated, cuts to services are the order of the day, with our new Mayor promising more in the near future.

This is short-sighted. Fresh Arts demonstrated the potential of community-driven programs partnering with government to improve the lives of the city’s marginalized youth. Remix is now doing the same. Programs like these are not part of a “gravy train”; as the success of Fresh Arts and Remix graduates demonstrate, they are smart social investments that benefit us all.

Moreover, they are central to building a strong, socially inclusive city that is creative, prosperous, and just.

Published in The Toronto Star Jan 30 2011

A bad week in In-Between City

Friday, May 14th, 2010

Last week was not a good one to be living in the “in-between city,” the term urbanists use to describe areas wedged between the outer suburbs — with their sprawling residential neighbourhoods — and the downtown core of office towers, condos and cultural institutions.

In Toronto, the in-between city roughly corresponds to the postwar suburbs, or inner suburbs, that grew with the booming economy of the 1950s and ’60s. As urban researchers at York University’s City Institute have observed, their highrises, diverse immigrant populations and lower-than-average incomes are the stuff of the inner city; but their bungalows, strip malls and wide roads are quintessentially suburban.

It is in the in-between city that “one finds some of the most pronounced urban contradictions” — think of resource-wealthy places like the University of Toronto Scarborough campus shoulder to shoulder with one of the city’s troubled priority neighbourhoods, Kingston-Galloway.

Socio-economically, the in-between city overlaps with what researchers at the U of T’s Centre for Urban and Community Studies have called Toronto’s “third city,” which consists of areas with high concentrations of racialized poverty, where incomes have decreased 20 per cent or more over the past 30 years. City Number 1, which has seen phenomenal income growth, is the richer and whiter downtown core and swanky neighbourhoods clustered around the city’s two subway lines. Toronto’s demographically mixed middle-income neighbourhoods — or City Number 2 — are diminishing in number as we become a more socially, economically and geographically polarized metropolis.

As a confluence of events last week demonstrates, life in the in-between city is not easy.

Take Jane and Finch, a typical neighbourhood of the in-between city. First we had the ongoing wrangling between the provincial government and Mayor David Miller over the future of Transit City. The last Liberal budget deferred $4 billion in funding for light rail lines on Sheppard, Finch and Eglinton, as well as the Scarborough rapid transit route. For Jane-Finch residents, the Finch West LRT promised to better integrate the neighbourhood into Toronto’s urban fabric, cutting down frustratingly long commute times, providing better access to the social, economic and cultural resources of the rest of the city, and ending years of institutionalized exclusion caused by inadequate public transit.

Residents of the in-between city have the furthest distances to travel for employment but suffer the poorest access to TTC subway lines. According to the U of T’s Three Cities study, only 16 of the TTC’s 68 stations are within or near the city’s poor neighbourhoods.

Next we saw the Toronto District School Board unveil money-saving plans to close one of Jane-Finch’s public schools. While the board sees this action as rationalizing the use of its resources, Jane-Finch residents see it as an attack on their already precarious social infrastructure. They said as much in a meeting at Brookview Middle School with more than 250 parents packing the gymnasium to register their opposition to the TDSB’s plans.

With much of the city’s social and community services located below the Bloor/Danforth line, in-between neighbourhoods such as Jane-Finch have been underserviced for years, especially given the community’s pressing needs. For residents, school closures do little to address the deficit of educational resources, child care, parks and recreation, and health services that detrimentally impact the neighbourhood’s population.

If school closures and transit cuts weren’t enough, we had the latest Toronto Police Services raid targeting street gangs operating in the city’s northwest. As many of the neighbourhood’s youth and community leaders have repeatedly argued, such raids effectively prune the branches of violence, while leaving the social and economic root intact. New recruits take the place of incarcerated members as gangs quickly reorganize to protect their turf in a drug economy fuelled by demand that is largely external to impoverished neighbourhoods like Jane-Finch.

The week also saw the tragic death of well-known neighbourhood teenager Junior Alexander Manon near York University. According to initial news reports, Manon and an acquaintance were pulled over by police on Steeles Ave. Manon fled on foot and the officers gave chase. Police claim that the teen then collapsed. Manon was pronounced dead at York-Finch Hospital.

After viewing Manon’s body at the morgue, his family’s lawyer Selwyn Peters spoke with the press. As the Star reported, Peters said: “There was blood all over. He had a neck brace on. His eyes were black and blue. The issue of a heart attack is a fiction. It seems he died from physical force. He was a healthy young person.” Witnesses claim Manon was beaten by the police.

While we mourn the loss of this well-liked teen, Manon’s death has serious ramifications for police-community relations. The incident only adds to the tension and mutual suspicion that has existed for years between police and Jane-Finch residents.

Accusations of police brutality threaten any bonds of trust police may have built with residents in past years. Furthermore, the use of force undermines the city’s “soft” approach to youth violence, which focuses on education, intervention and diversion. Youth will not engage a police force that subjects them to routine intimidation and harassment.

But all is not despair: the in-between city is a city of activists, concerned parents, urban entrepreneurs and young leaders. Independent media outlets like Jane-Finch.com cover community issues and give young people a voice that they don’t have in the mainstream media.

Groups such as the Black Action Defence Committee are engaged in gang exit, youth employment and leadership development programs. Jane-Finch Action Against Poverty, the St. Alban’s Boys and Girls Club, and youth drop-in The SPOT are all working around issues of social justice, effectively mitigating the marginalization experienced by their community.

Across Toronto, in neighbourhoods like Jane-Finch, hundreds of community organizations work tirelessly on issues of transit justice, tenant rights and food security, sometimes with the help of the city through initiatives like the Neighbourhood Action Plan and Youth Challenge Fund, and often on shoestring budgets.

Such efforts give residents of the in-between city hope. Hope that one day their lives will not include the drama of police raids, struggling schools, low wages and long commutes. Hope that governments at all levels will recognize the need for a comprehensive urban agenda that combats social exclusion and addresses the needs of the in-between city.

And when you’ve lived through a week like the one just passed, hope may well be the one thing needed most.

Published in The Toronto Star, May 14 2010

Welfare isn’t broken, so it won’t be fixed

Sunday, March 28th, 2010

On Thursday, provincial Finance Minister Dwight Duncan will deliver the government of Ontario’s budget for 2010. As reported in last Wednesday’s Star, Duncan is set to announce investments in post-secondary education as part of the province’s Open Ontario plan and has pledged not to embark on a reckless deficit reduction program that would threaten jobs, services, and Ontario’s economic recovery.

It is also widely expected Duncan will announce action on the province’s social assistance programs, Ontario Works (OW) and the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP). And while anti-poverty advocates have long demanded major improvements to these programs, they shouldn’t hold their breath.

In pre-budget consultations, as they do year after year, advocates for the poor – and often the poor themselves – have claimed that Ontario’s welfare system is broken and needs to be fixed. And in many ways, they are right. With welfare rates at inadequately low levels, each month thousands of poor Ontarians must choose between paying the rent and feeding the kids. They turn to food banks to supplement their monthly cheques. They forego the everyday essentials many of us take for granted – things such as basic toiletries, haircuts and some of the creature comforts that make our stressful lives a little more bearable. Ontario’s poor endure the daily grind of poverty and they do so, remarkably, with their sanity and dignity intact. Given this context, fixing welfare means raising the rates and ensuring poor Ontarians maintain a decent standard of living.

That welfare is broken is not just the cry of anti-poverty advocates and “radical” activists; groups like the multi-sector Toronto City Summit Alliance and economists such as the TD Bank’s Don Drummond have called for a much needed modernization of the province’s income security policies. It is this widespread recognition that something must be done about poverty in Ontario, and the social policies which are meant to address it, that led the McGuinty government to adopt Breaking the Cycle, the province’s poverty reduction strategy which aims to reduce child poverty by 25 per cent over five years.

So why is the government unlikely to overhaul social assistance any time soon, if ever, despite its apparent commitment to an anti-poverty agenda? Sure, minor adjustments may well be made: for instance, currently an able-bodied unemployed person who has exhausted their employment insurance benefits must be destitute (i.e. with little savings) before becoming eligible for social assistance. Calls to exempt the first $5,000 of a welfare applicant’s savings, as they do in Alberta, may be heeded by the McGuinty Liberals. But despite these potential changes, welfare on the whole will not be fixed, chiefly because from the perspective of government and the business community, welfare is not broken.

To understand why is to understand the function of welfare. Poor relief, as welfare was once commonly called, was never designed to be a benevolent handout to the poor. From its roots in England’s Poor Laws through to the punitive social assistance reforms of the mid-1990s, welfare policy has operated on the principle of “less eligibility.” The historic 1834 report on Britain’s Poor Laws, issued at the behest of King William IV, stated: “The first and most essential of all conditions, a principle which we find universally admitted, even by those whose practice is at variance with it, is, that his (the relief recipient’s) situation on the whole shall not be made really or apparently so eligible (i.e., desirable) as the situation of the independent labourer of the lowest class.” Over 150 years later, the logic remains: The recipient of social assistance should never be better off than the lowest paid wage worker in the labour market. This is exactly what Mike Harris had in mind when his government introduced workfare and cut welfare rates by 21.6 per cent, and why the McGuinty government has done so little to reverse these changes.

Since the early 1990s, the Ontario labour market has been characterized by the growth and persistence of low-wage, insecure jobs or “precarious employment.” One in six workers in the province is making a poverty wage. Whether employed part-time in the fast-food industry or working security through a temp agency, the growing ranks of the working poor live in a world of labour market insecurity. Many workers cycle between low-wage employment and periods on social assistance, as they often don’t have the required hours to qualify for employment insurance. These workers are disproportionately racialized minorities, women, youth and recent immigrants. Business needs these workers to maintain the low-wage-big profits model of the “Wal-Mart economy” and governments across the country are in no mood to provide decent jobs through an expansion of public sector employment or reverse the deregulation of labour markets they’ve so vigorously pursued.

With these shifting trends in employment, welfare functions to ensure a cheap and flexible workforce to populate the lower reaches of the province’s labour market. To paraphrase University of British Columbia professor Jamie Peck, welfare today is not about creating jobs for people who don’t have them but about creating workers for jobs nobody wants.

Miserly benefit levels, restrictive eligibility criteria and the ritualized stigmatization of those who navigate the administrative maze of welfare, are all in keeping with the government’s desire to ensure a job at any wage, under any conditions, remains preferable to the receipt of social assistance. The province’s tooth-and-nail fight to keep social assistance recipients from having greater access to the special diet program (which they may do away with altogether) is only the latest manifestation of maintaining the principle of less eligibility.

So while anti-poverty advocates are right to claim that welfare is broken, in the eyes of the province and the business community, welfare is working just fine.

 

Published in The Toronto Star, March 24th 2010