By Deborah O’Connor
The last year has been a tumultuous one in Ontario for those caught in the welfare trap. Faced first by the austerity demands of the Drummond Report, then the final report from the Commission to Review Social Assistance, released after the legislature was already prorogued, the year ended with no clear direction in place but cuts to basic supports imposed regardless.
For those of us wondering why the Province seems intent on passing on funding responsibilities to municipalities, recent events in Northumberland showed us the rationale in stark black and white. When news of drastic cuts to two local helping agencies emerged, it’s the County that made those decisions and the Province’s role in making the cuts in the first place faded away. Not only did this move deflect blame away from the Province for cutting crucial housing supports, it also allowed the municipalities to make the hard decisions without the need to demonstrate transparency or consult with anyone beforehand. Here in Northumberland there was a “leader’s breakfast” back in December where Social Services management explained their new policies, but they said very little of substance. Even though Managing Director Mark Darroch had grudgingly admitted to the media already that there could be severe consequences coming for some community agencies, participants left the meeting with full stomachs but no wiser than when they entered. Vague recommendations to work with each other to streamline their administrations was all the guidance agencies received, and when the actual cuts were finally announced in early January, it was clear those decisions had been made some time ago.
This style of governance by decree from the highest levels has always been the style of choice when it comes to delivering Social Services in Northumberland. Like the annual budget setting exercise, the community is left out in the cold when it comes to consultation. A draft budget will be presented later this month, fine tuned and discussed in February and pushed through Council in March, just like always. Aside from the ability to make a presentation in February to Councillors, there’s no real dialogue with the public or stakeholders as the County’s Department Managers develop their budgets in isolation, then wait for Council to tinker with the numbers briefly before approving them.
Along with increased responsibilities, municipalities like ours need to recognize their decisions, like this one by Social Services that will severely curtail the ability of community agencies to provide their services, must include serious input from those affected. Edicts from the top just don’t cut it anymore. They’re not fair, not transparent, and not effective either. When the latest press release from the County trumpets what they claim is an increase in funding of $110,318 on top of recovering the $267,984 cut by the Province, we are left shaking our heads in bewilderment. If there’s more money, not less, for housing and homelessness services, why have the Salvation Army and the Help Centre’s budgets been slashed so much? The sad fact is that with the current style of management in place at the County, we will likely never know the answer.
Turning now to the individuals and families on social assistance in Northumberland, there is much confusion and fear about the new policies and what they will mean in times of crisis. Many low-income people welcomed the shift to community agencies providing emergency funds, since they were certainly treated more warmly and sympathetically there than they were at the welfare office. Now, with the welfare workers calling all the shots, getting help just got a lot harder, and a lot more confusing too.
Not fooled for a minute at all the machinations the Province has made to get us to this point, one member of the longstanding group Northumberland Coalition Against Poverty said it perfectly: “You know if the government would just raise the damn rates to reflect today’s economy and cost of living, there would not be as great a need for supports like the utilities fund and such”. We can’t put it any better than that.