Employment insurance delays cruel punishment

By Robert Washburn

Poverty reduction is not high on the list of priorities of politicians these days. Sure, you will hear a lot about the economy being the number one priority. But rarely, if ever, do you hear about what the government is doing to help the poor or those who are struggling to find work.

Northumberland MP Rick Norlock came under fire last week when two of the local agencies spoke out about the increasing delays in people getting Employment Insurance. This is not the first time the current government has failed to help people in a timely way. Back in 2009, additional people were hired by Services Canada to expedite a backlog of applicants who were forced to wait more than eight weeks for a decision on their application.

Norlock admits he is getting complaints at his office, but explains it away by saying there are staff reduction at Services Canada and it is undergoing a modernization program to make things better.

Obviously, the improvements are not happening fast enough. Finally, in the face of mounting pressure from across the country, Human Resources Minister Diane Finley announced late last week 165 new temporary employees will be hired to help process claims and another 214 current workers will be reassigned to the processing section. And, 120 part-time staff will be moved to full-time status.

But the federal government is not alone.

The recently released final report on the 9th annual Justice Forum held by the Northumberland Community Legal Centre also paints a pretty dark picture of the treatment of people who are on the Ontario Disability and Support program and Ontario Works. Often, these people have already run out of Employment Insurance program benefits and are turning to the province and municipal governments for help.

In its report, the forum recommendations included items like a guaranteed minimum that no low income person would ever go below; solid funding, implementation of the provincial poverty reduction strategy; a recognition that getting a job does not mean an instant path to prosperity; a balancing of inequities in the labour market, particularly for rural areas; and finally, government taking responsibility rather than blaming the poor.

Every level of government wants to pat itself on the back when job statistics rise or a new business comes to town.  Without question, it is positive news.

As well, those with their hands on the budgetary purse want to appear reasonable and fiscally sound.

But we cannot watch all this through rose-coloured glasses. When politicians talk about tough times and tough decisions, it means more people will lose their jobs. Businesses will trim staffing to cut costs and governments will layoff public servants.

In some cases, those people fall very far. Not everyone seeking assistance is a lifetime recipient of government handouts. To ignore the challenges and circumstances of these people can only be described as heartless. It is also callous not to do something about it beyond political lip service. And, responding only after massive public outrage is cynical, like a bull swishing its tale to get rid of a bothersome fly.

First, acknowledging a problem is not solving it. Governments should be able to do more. The federal government thinks job creation is its only responsibility, but helping people rise out of poverty is so much more. There are no plans to address the deeper, more complex problems. Premier Dalton McGuinty worked on a Poverty Reduction Strategy, but little concrete has been done.

Next, municipalities have a role to play. Relying on economic development is a limited vision, where creating jobs is only one component. There is not a county or municipal poverty reduction strategy. And, there should be one.

As various strategic plans are developed or implemented across municipalities in Northumberland, poverty reduction should be a part, if for no other reason than add more voices for advocacy.

First appeared: Jan. 18, 2012