Posts Tagged ‘welfare’

When it Comes to Poverty Reduction, Budget 2016 Earns Failing Grade

Saturday, April 30th, 2016

Another provincial budget, another Liberal betrayal of Ontarians living in poverty. Despite past promises, the provincial government’s Budget 2016 does not prioritize poverty reduction. While the budget does include some concrete measures designed to make life more affordable for low and moderate-income households, as Ontario Federation of Labour President Chris Buckley has remarked, “modest program improvements in certain sectors are being paid for by across-the-board cuts to others.” Make no mistake about it: despite overtures to “social investment”, this is an austerity budget and makes a mockery of the provincial Liberal’s poverty reduction commitments.

Back in 2007, the Liberals announced a much heralded poverty reduction strategy with the modest goal of reducing child poverty by 25 percent over five years. However, according to economists with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Ontario ended its five-year strategy with the same level of child poverty as when it began in 2008.  While long overdue increases in the Ontario Child Benefit and the minimum wage, the roll out of full-day kindergarten, and the introduction of Healthy Smiles Ontario (a program providing dental care for kids in low-income households), have all been important developments, since the austerity budget of 2012, the Liberals have beat a hasty retreat in their War on Poverty.

Our self-styled “social justice premier”, Kathleen Wynne, is a former schoolteacher and has written her fair share of report cards. Well it’s time to issue the Wynne government a poverty report card and in subjects ranging from social assistance to food security, the provincial Liberals are earning very bad grades.

F in Social Assistance

Close to 900,000 Ontarians rely on social assistance to help meet their basic needs. Since the Harris Conservative’s cuts in 1995, welfare incomes have been grossly inadequate, falling far below the poverty line.

For folks on social assistance, Budget 2016 does bring some good news. The Wynne government has committed to ending the dollar-for-dollar claw back of child support from social assistance, although the amount of child support that single parents will be able to keep has not yet been determined. Furthermore, as the Income Security Advocacy Centre has pointed out, there is no new money for legal aid services that give single parents the assistance they need to obtain child care support orders.

In terms of social assistance rates, the budget includes a 1.5 percent increase in rates for families on OW and ODSP recipients and a 3.7 percent increase to the rates for single individuals without children on OW (which amounts to an extra $25 a month). However, the increases will not kick in until September and October. Furthermore, with inflation at around 2 percent, a 1.5 percent increase actually amounts to a cut in the real income of families on OW and folks on ODSP.

F in Child Care

According to the Ontario Coalition for Better Child Care, Ontario tops the list of the highest and least affordable child care fees in Canada, with long wait lists for subsidy in many communities.

Despite this, Budget 2016 offers no new money for child care and creates no new child care spaces. As Carolyn Ferns, Public Policy Coordinator of the Ontario Coalition for Better Child Care, has said “The Ontario government is squandering its chance to make real progress on early learning and child care.”

The budget ignores the affordability crisis facing Ontario’s parents, especially low and moderate-income families. Subsidized child care can be a route out of poverty, especially for single mothers on social assistance. Sadly, the Wynne Liberals are doing nothing to improve access to quality, affordable child care.

D in Housing

With long waiting lists and a huge backlog in repairs, social housing in Ontario is in crisis. Yet the budget doesn’t serve up any major new cash for social housing needs and instead simply repeats previous commitments.

There is an injection of $178 million over three years into the Liberal government’s existing affordable housing strategy. This will go into assistance to those fleeing domestic violence (a $2.4-million pilot) and homelessness outreach ($45 million). Details are thin on where the remaining $100 million will be spent, although the budget says it will support 1,500 new supportive housing units providing assistance to those with disabilities and other needs. Again, this is not new money but simply the repackaging of previous commitments.

Furthermore, as the Income Security Advocacy Centre points out, there is no increase in direct funding to low-income households, especially folks on social assistance, to pay for the housing-related expenses—like first and last month’s rent, utilities arrears, and furniture replacement. These expenses used to be covered by the Community Start-Up and Maintenance Benefit, which the Wynne government axed in 2013.

F in Food Security

Rising food and housing costs are leaving many cash poor folks with the dire choice either paying the rent or putting food on the table. According to the Daily Bread Food Bank, food costs are up 4% and vegetable prices have increased upwards of 18%. Food bank use has been on the rise throughout the province. The Daily Bread estimates that after paying for rent and utilities, the average food bank user has an income of only $6.67 a day to try to live on. With no commitment to food security in Budget 2016, people living on low-incomes will continue to have to rely on food banks and experience the health problems associated with poor diets.

B in Post-Secondary Education

On the poverty file, post-secondary education is the one bright spot in Budget 2016. Changes to the post-secondary grants and loans system and education-related tax credits will mean that students from families with incomes under $50,000 will receive more in non-repayable grants than they pay in tuition for most post-secondary programs.

These changes apply to anyone who is eligible for OSAP, including those receiving social assistance. While the devil is in the details—students and/or parents will stay have to pony up $3000 to access these grants—this appears to be one subject in which the Wynne Liberals are worthy of a decent grade.

However, the government is providing no new funding for post-secondary education overall and this means little will change for the army of precarious part-time instructors who now do the bulk of undergraduate teaching in Ontario and who often earn near poverty-level incomes.

New Initiatives

The provincial government has announced it will be setting up a guaranteed basic income pilot project but with few details, we should reserve judgment on this subject.

Overall grade: F

When it comes to poverty, the provincial Liberal’s 2016 budget deserves a failing grade. In Ontario, there has been a 38% increase in poverty over the past 20 years. Nearly one in five of the province’s children live in poverty and close to 7 workers are now earning within $4 of the minimum wage. Ontario families pay up to $19,000 a year for child care, the highest costs in Canada. And as the Income Security Advocacy Centre has said, “below-poverty incomes for people on social assistance continue to leave them in dire circumstances.” Overall, Ontario funds all of its social programs at the lowest rate in Canada.

The need to build a strong anti-poverty movement in Ontario has never been more pressing. Not simply an example of the moral callousness of the Wynne government, Budget 2016 is a reflection of the current weakness of our movement. If the provincial Liberals are to earn better grades, we will need to encourage them—with protests, rallies, organizing, activism, and effective advocacy—to go back to school.

Simon Black is Assistant Professor at the Centre for Labour Studies, Brock University, and a member of Peel Poverty Action Group

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The way forward for Ontario’s anti-poverty movement

Tuesday, October 30th, 2012

A version of this article was published in The Toronto Star as “Ontario Anti-Poverty Movement Needs a Dose of Street Heat”.

Last week, Frances Lankin and Munir Sheikh, heads of the Commission for the Review of Social Assistance in Ontario, released their final report, Brighter Prospects: Transforming Social Assistance in Ontario. It contains some good ideas but anti-poverty activists will have to ask themselves whether more aggressive action is necessary.

The commission called on the government to implement some of its 108 recommendations immediately, including a $100-a-month rate increase for single adults on Ontario Works (they currently receive $599 a month, 66 per cent below the poverty line); changing the rules to allow all recipients to earn $200 a month without having their benefits reduced, and raising OW asset limits to Ontario Disability Support Program levels of $6,000 for a single person and $7,500 for a couple. Adopting these recommendations would make small, but concrete material differences in the lives of social assistance recipients.

We’ve been here before. The 1988 review of social assistance, entitled Transitions, was a 500-page tome documenting all that was wrong with the system and put forward progressive measures for change. While some of these measures were adopted under the Peterson and Rae governments, in 1995 the Harris Conservatives came to power, cut welfare rates by 21.6 per cent and turned the province’s social assistance system into one of the cruellest and most punitive in the country.

Despite a few tweaks since forming government in 2003, the provincial Liberals have left this system largely intact. With a dismal record on poverty reduction and an apparent willingness to balance the books on the backs of everyday people, it is doubtful whether a new Liberal leader would move us in the right direction.

In fact, just months prior to the release of the commission’s report, the McGuinty Liberals announced plans to eliminate a benefit program that gave up to $1,500 every two years to families on social assistance that were facing eviction, in danger of having their utilities cut off, fleeing domestic violence, moving from shelters or unsafe housing, or unable to replace bedbug-infested furniture or broken appliances. This followed their cut to the Special Diet program which many social assistance recipients relied on to meet their dietary needs.

The government’s formal response to Lankin and Sheikh’s report has been to announce that it will work with its “partners, both inside and outside of government, to discuss the implications of transformation, and begin creating a road map for success.” More discussions, more timetables, more debate, consultation and “stakeholder dialogue.” The government has said that welfare rates and benefit structures will remain unchanged in the interim. In the meantime, Ontario’s poor continue to face the dire dilemma of whether to feed the kids or pay the rent.

Ontario’s anti-poverty movement — the thousands of individuals and hundreds of organizations committed to ending poverty in this province — is now at a crossroads. A cynic might argue that the greatest achievement of the social assistance review process, and indeed the broader poverty reduction strategy, has been to neutralize the anti-poverty movement, channelling its resources and energies away from organizing and activism and into advocacy, away from challenging government to having dialogue with it.

History tells us that successful movements for social change play both “insider” and “outsider” politics. Social movements need advocates on the inside to push their agenda, put forward progressive policies and develop relationships with decision makers. But these insiders are powerless without the threat of disruption and mobilization on the outside, what American civil rights campaigner Jesse Jackson famously called “street heat.” Organizing tenants, occupying welfare offices, knocking on MPPs’ doors, showing up unannounced at political party fundraisers, marches and demonstrations, mass political education, consciousness-raising, appealing to the moral sensibilities of the general public — these are the sometimes messy but always powerful stuff of social movement politics.

Ontario’s anti-poverty movement has a surplus of insiders, but has thus far failed to bring the street heat. Faced with an intransigent government, the question now is whether the scarce resources of the movement can be turned from consultation and dialogue — the polite politics of the inside — to organizing, activism and agitation, the street-fighting politics of the outside.

Does this shift make sense with a prorogued legislature and lame duck premier? Poor people and their allies are tired of timelines, consultations and “stakeholder” meetings. The movement’s focus on insider politics has appeared to play into the government’s agenda of delay, defer and deflect.

At a meeting of the Region of Peel’s roundtable on social assistance, a woman with lived experience of poverty turned to the group and said, “We’re tired of waiting. We want justice and we want it now.” If the anti-poverty movement can’t find justice via commissions and consultations, it’s time we look for it in the streets, constituency and welfare offices across this province.

Simon Black is a researcher in urban social policy at the City Institute at York University and a member of Peel Poverty Action Group.

Published in The Toronto Star, Oct 30 2012

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

 

“Those in Power Don’t Like Us; Nor Should They”: A Conversation with Anti-Poverty Activist John Clarke

Tuesday, April 3rd, 2012

John Clarke is one of Ontario’s most well-known anti-poverty activists. As an organizer with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, Clarke has been on the frontlines of poor peoples’ struggles for over twenty years. Tough Times contributor Simon Black recently sat down with Clarke to discuss organizing, the social assistance review process, and what the future holds for low-income Ontarians.

Simon Black: You’ve been organizing in low-income communities for over twenty years now. Can you reflect on what works and what doesn’t in poor people’s organizing?

John Clarke: Twenty years of OCAP organizing has probably raised more questions than it has provided answers.  Still, there are some sides to the issue that seem to me to stand out.  The first point really is the basis on which you organize.  In OCAP we have rejected the idea that poor people can win anything by ‘educating’ governments or by trying to be polite and respectable.  Workers in unions won what they have by going on strike.  The poor are not likely to have that power so they have to ask themselves what they can use instead.  If you are unemployed or homeless, the system has decided to exclude you and, at best, provide with a pittance to survive on.  In that situation, what they want from you is to be as quiet and invisible as possible.  The key to your power, then, lies with your ability to get together with others in the same situation as yourself and do the very opposite of what they expect of you.

The great unemployed movements of the 1930s organized resistance to the poverty of that time by taking large scale disruptive actions.  Masses of unemployed took over relief offices to press demands for income.  Hundreds blocked attempts to evict poor families from their housing.  These kinds of actions took place on a scale that forced governments to meet peoples’ needs.  OCAP tries to take a similar approach.  Those in power don’t like us and nor should they.  We are working to create a rebellion against the conditions of poverty and those conditions continue to worsen and increase the need for strong and determined resistance.

I would also say that this approach may be the right one but no form of organizing in poor communities is easy.  You have to overcome peoples’ hesitation and belief that little can be done.  You have to root yourself in a community and prove your worth as an organization over a long period of time.  We have, of course, taken up many broad campaigns but we have also put a premium on actions that deal with the problems of individual people and families.  Delegations to welfare offices to win benefits, and other such actions, have always been a big part of what we do.  We really do believe that it is possible to build an organization of the poor that is not a kind of therapy session but that really does fight to win.

SB: How does OCAP differ from other poor peoples’ organizations such as ACORN?

JC: I think the fundamental difference we have with most anti poverty initiatives that operate today is around the notion I just put forward.  The opposite idea to mobilizing disruptive collective action is to try and show those in power that you are a well behaved and responsible voice of the poor.  The emphasis is placed, with this approach, on lobbying politicians and getting supportive media coverage.  The problem with it is you don’t have anything those in power need.  They are happy to let you stay in poverty and see no reason to do otherwise as long as you are working to keep the poor passive and following the rules.  You may organize some demonstrations but they will be run as moral appeals to those in power to ‘do the right thing’.

We don’t think that this respectable approach to anti poverty organizing has ever been the right way to go but, in today’s situation, where they are cutting back on social programs and ramming austerity down our throats, it is a hopeless approach.  In Toronto, we deal with Mayor Rob Ford.  What could poor people say to him to convince him to be kinder and gentler?  At the provincial level, we are now dealing with the report from Don Drummond that advocates measures that are many times worse than anything Mike Harris ever did.  That is the direction those in power intend to go.  The have to understand that poor people will fight back or they will see no reason to hold back on what they are doing.  Those who want to issue appeals and hold polite meetings with politicians are not just wasting their time. Whatever their intentions, they are diverting people from what needs to be done.

SB: What do you think of the McGuinty government’s poverty reduction strategy and the social assistance review process? What are the benefits and pitfalls of poor peoples’ organizations participating in such a review?

JC: The McGuinty government came to power in order to consolidate and deepen the social cutbacks and giveaways to the rich that the Harris Tories established.  However, they didn’t choose to be as up front and confrontational as Harris had been.  They choose to create the impression that they were going to put things back in place.  Welfare and ODSP rates are actually much lower, in terms of their spending power, than they were when the Tories left office.  However, McGuinty has covered his tracks with a sham display of ‘poverty reduction’.  At at time when we should have been filling the streets to demand decent income from this Government, people were wasting their time going through an endless process of consultation with the Liberals.

Looking back, it is truly breathtaking to realize how long this Government was able to pull the wool over peoples’ eyes.  Reviews, studies, committees, hearings on poverty reduction went on for years while the poor became poorer. It was, from their point of view, a highly successful strategy.  Apart from the campaign to win the Special Diet for people on assistance and the mobilizing to confront the Liberals that OCAP and allies engaged in during this time, ‘anti poverty activism’ moved into the corridors of Queen’s Park and the theory of ‘constructive engagement’ was all the rage.  This came down to the notion that the Liberals would really reduce poverty if we could only make clear enough arguments.  Of course, they were sly enough to play along and created the impression that they were seriously interested in these ideas.  The only factor that could have forced concessions from the Government would have been a challenge to them on poverty but the friendly lobby that they kept around them took things in the exactly opposite direction.  The poor got less than nothing as a result.

Since 2008, the crisis that has broken in the world economy has swept all this away.  McGuinty no longer has the luxury of appearing nice and caring.  His Government is getting ready to cut programs and slash spending as is every level of government.  The choices for poor and working people are to accept this and retreat before the austerity agenda of to organize and fight back.  This is going to be a very hard time but it is going to be a time when the ideas and approaches of OCAP are going to more relevant than they have ever been.

 

Published in Tough Times 1 (1) 2012

Ontario’s Poor Can’t Wait

Thursday, March 8th, 2012

In my latest op-ed for The Toronto Star, I discuss how quiet acceptance of austerity is not a realistic option for those living on the economic edge.

During the last two weeks in Ontario politics, we have seen a tale of two reports. The Drummond report has received a great deal of attention and rightly so: as the Star’s own Martin Regg Cohn put it, “Cutbacks are back and bigger than ever. And this time, they’re here to stay.” Millions of Ontarians, but especially the poor and middle class, stand to be impacted should the government act on Drummond’s recommendations.

Yet another report, that of the Commission for the Review of Social Assistance, slipped under the media’s radar and was greeted with little fanfare by the government and general public alike. This report discusses different approaches to improving some of the key areas of the province’s welfare system and is an important step in the broader review process headed by ex-StatsCan chief Munir Sheik and former United Way of Greater Toronto CEO Frances Lankin.

The review of social assistance plays a key role in the provincial government’s poverty reduction strategy, announced by the premier and welcomed by anti-poverty advocates back in 2008. Sheik and Lankin have embarked on an extensive consultation process, speaking with social workers, policy experts, business leaders, people with lived experience of poverty, and anti-poverty advocates. Their final report, which will make recommendations that will enable government to “remove barriers and increase opportunities for people to work,” is to be released this summer.

While the Drummond report takes a largely hands-off approach to social assistance, deferring to the work of the commission, much in it runs counter to the spirit and stated goals of both the review of social assistance and the broader strategy of poverty reduction. For one, Drummond recommends rolling back the Ontario Child Benefit (OCB), a subsidy that helps low-income families provide for their children. The OCB has been partially credited with the small but nevertheless important reduction in child poverty Ontario has seen over the past few years.

But more generally the report is silent on the concerns of the poor, from much-needed increases in child-care funding to the construction of more affordable housing. Drummond was, after all, primarily tasked with discerning where to make cuts, not how to expand social programs.

If acted upon, Drummond’s austerity package could well push Ontario’s unemployment rate into double-digits. With the federal government’s continued reticence to expand eligibility for employment insurance, thousands more Ontarians could turn to a welfare system that currently does more to punish than help the poor, who have yet to recover from the 22 per cent cut to welfare imposed by the Harris Tories back in 1995. McGuinty has raised rates slightly, but these increases have not kept up with inflation. If welfare was to be returned to pre-Harris levels, the government would have to raise rates by close to 60 per cent. You can be sure that such an increase is not in the cards in the current political climate.

So the next few years, likely the next decade, look tough for low-income Ontarians. Lower child-care subsidies, larger waiting lists for social housing, persistent unemployment and more people 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, will be derided as “unfriendly to business.”

How then do the poor make gains in a climate of austerity? Before we mine history for answers we must first ask: “Who are the poor?” The obvious answer is, “those living at or below the poverty line,” but many of us live one paycheque away from poverty. What happens to social assistance and other social supports should be a concern for us all.

And as a recent Metcalf Foundation report concluded, between 2000 and 2005 the number of working poor increased by 42 per cent, numbering 113,000 people in the Toronto region alone. Those numbers have certainly risen since the Great Recession began in 2008. And an even larger number of people are near-poor. The poor are not only those living on social assistance.

Before the great labour struggles of the 1930s and ’40s, the poor were, like today, both working people and those out of work. Those struggles led to the legitimization of unions, the construction of the welfare state, and a greater share of society’s wealth going to labour.

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’s social assistance review. 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 poor people’s 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.” The Drummond report tells poor people they must wait. Now it is up to the poor to reply: “We will not.”

Simon Black is a researcher in urban social policy at the City Institute at York University and a member of Peel Poverty Action Group.

published in The Toronto Star, March 3 2012 IN6

Cities on High Alert

Tuesday, October 11th, 2011

Here’s my latest op-ed on urban issues for The Toronto Star. They have a habit of changing my titles; this one was originally “The Age of Urban Unrest?”

Last week, New York City’s mayor Michael Bloomberg rang alarm bells when he said that high unemployment could lead to mass social unrest in cities across the United States.  “You have a lot of kids graduating college who can’t find jobs. That’s what happened in Cairo. That’s what happened in Madrid. You don’t want those kinds of riots here,” Bloomberg explained. The mayor was not alone in this assessment. Former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn said as much back in 2008; “unemployment,” he declared, “represents a risk to the stability of existing democracies.”

Bloomberg’s warning came with his endorsement of President Obama’s new jobs creation bill. As a big city mayor, Bloomberg knows too well that the social problems associated with high unemployment, widening inequality, and economic stagnation are most acute in urban centres. Whereas Strauss-Kahn’s words proved prophetic, Bloomberg was learning from recent history.

Since the onset of the global economic crisis back in 2007-2008, cities have seen rising levels of violence and social unrest: riots and looting in the UK, intensified gang violence in major US cities, street clashes in Athens, flash robs in Philadelphia, mass protests in Madrid, ghetto dwellers and security forces facing off in Kingston, Jamaica, rival drug cartels engaged in shootouts in Juarez, Mexico; the list goes on. As many political observers have remarked, a driving force behind the Arab Spring – apart from an unquenched thirst for democracy – is unemployment, and in particular, extremely high levels of youth unemployment.

Non-governmental organizations have started making the connections as well. A recent report from the International Red Cross, entitled Urban Violence: War By Any Other Name observes, “Around the world, cities are experiencing an alarming increase in violence and its resulting misery…Chronic conflict makes daily life in some places almost like living in a war zone.”

And images of urban unrest not only flash nightly across our TV screens and occupy the pages of our newspapers, they also permeate our popular culture as never before: just watch recent science fiction films like Attack the Block, District 9, and Battle: Los Angeles. The city as a place of conflict and civil disorder is part of our cultural zeitgeist.

We have then, it appears, entered an age of urban unrest.

But London is not Philadelphia and Cairo not Kingston. From riots and looting, to mass protest, flash robs, and gang warfare, there are very different types of urban violence and social unrest with seemingly disparate causes. But while poverty, inequality, and unemployment do not tell the full story in all places, they do tell much of the story in many places.

In the case of the UK’s recent disorder, we have learned from The Guardian newspaper that the vast majority of rioters brought before the courts are young, poor, and unemployed. In the Tottenham neighbourhood, where the riots began, 54 people chase every one available job.

Where austerity and cutbacks to government services deepen poverty and unemployment, unrest soon follows.  Two Barcelona-based economists have published research which clearly shows a link between the variables. Empirical data on close to forty European and Latin American countries demonstrates a positive statistical association between government spending cuts, unemployment and levels of unrest, including anti-government demonstrations, riots, strikes and attempted revolutions.

In addition, path-breaking research by social epidemiologists has found that among advanced democracies, more equal societies (and by extension, cities) are also more socially stable and less violent.

In the absence of work and of hope, different ways of organizing human activity fill the social void. The anomie brought on by unemployment and other forms of social exclusion can be addressed through participation in other social groupings, sometimes a gang, sometimes a mob, sometimes a radical political or religious organization. When channelled into movements seeking to address legitimate grievances, as in the Arab Spring, urban unrest, disruption and disorder can be welcomed. History tells us that rough means can sometimes bring about progressive ends, especially when democratic channels are closed to those suffering injustice. Yet few urban denizens welcome the type of violence and disruption that causes misery, damage, and distress in their lives and in the life of their city.

We live in an urban age.  In 1950, less than 30% of the world’s population were city dwellers. Now, for the first time in human history, the world’s urban population outnumbers its rural. As never before, the fate of humanity is tightly intertwined with the fate of the city. And whether we live in Toronto or Tokyo, Lagos or Los Angeles, safety and security are necessary conditions for a flourishing urbanity and a decent quality of life. As even the conservative-leaning Mayor of New York City has realized, addressing inequality, deprivation and unemployment with meaningful government action is central to maintaining social cohesion in an era of economic uncertainty.

Published Oct 11 2011 in The Toronto Star, pg. A19

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/)

Appearence on DisRespect Radio

Saturday, February 19th, 2011

Geoff Langhorne hosts a great little radio program on CFMU 93.3 in Hamilton. It’s been going for 8 years now and I’m honoured to be an occasional guest. On this week’s show we discussed the anti-poverty movement in Ontario. In particular, I spoke about the development of the Special Diet campaign, a campaign whose tactics and objectives harken back to the great welfare rights struggles of the 1960s. Here’s a link to the podcast:

http://www.radio4all.net/index.php/program/49501

See DisRespect’s homepage at: http://cfmu.msumcmaster.ca/

Glenn Beck targets Frances Fox Piven

Wednesday, February 2nd, 2011

For the past year or so, my friend and mentor Frances Fox Piven has been subject to a rather bizarre but nevertheless dangerous campaign launched by Fox News blowhard Glenn Beck.  Beck, whose weekly rants attract 2 million-plus viewers in the U.S., has targetted Piven as one of the conspiratorial leaders of a movement to bring down the United States’ “economic system” and replace it with authoritarian socialism. According to Beck, everyone from Woodrow Wilson to Barack Obama and community group ACORN are indicted in this movement (I only wish Obama had some left-wing convictions!). 

Frances has dedicated her life to the cause of social justice and she was a central figure in both the welfare rights movement and the passing of Clinton-era legislation, the National Voter Registration Act, which sought to ensure low-income Americans could excercise their democratic right to vote.  She’s always believed that it is the mobilization of everyday people that can change politics for the better and bring about a more just society. Her activism and scholarship have advanced the struggle against what Martin Luther King Jr. called the “three evils”: militarism, racial injustice, and poverty.

It’s both sad and disturbing that someone like Glenn Beck, whose ideology and actions are geared toward reinforcing the massive inequalities in power and wealth that characterize American society, is a household name. The Center for Constitutional Rights (http://ccrjustice.org/) has written a letter to Fox demanding Beck end his attacks. We will have to see what comes of this. In the meantime, check out some of the links below:

Here’s Piven’s latest article in The Nation magazine: http://www.thenation.com/article/157292/mobilizing-jobless

And some coverage of Beck’s idiocy in the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/22/business/media/22beck.html

Finally, here’s a link to an interview Frances gave on Democracy Now, giving her take on the whole affair: http://www.democracynow.org/2011/1/14/why_is_glenn_beck_obsessively_targeting

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