Welfare recipients should not face testing

First published:
May 9, 2001

Welfare recipients will be tested for literacy as well as for addiction to alcohol, drugs and prescription medicine, Social Services Minister John Baird announced last week. His rationale is simple. The government wants to break down barriers to employment. Lack of experience, poor reading skills or addictions to drugs and alcohol will not stand in anyone’s way, he said.

While Northumberland County social services department does not do testing for literacy, it does refer people to the three agencies who run literacy programs: Sir Sanford Fleming College, the Read Centre and the public school board. County services co-ordinator Debbie McKee Demczyk said caseworkers determine the various things preventing people from getting a job through the normal course of a welfare application interview. If illiteracy is identified, then a proper assessment will be done through one of the agencies. This past year, 21 people, referred by the county, were enrolled in the Fleming course. The previous year, 41 received help.

The same approach is used for drug addition and alcohol abuse, McKee Demczyk said. Various treatment programs ranging from Alcoholics Anonymous to those in mental health clinics are used by caseworkers to assist those wanting help.

For anyone with multiple barriers to getting a job, the county has a host of agencies that can help, including WINDOW (Work Integration Network for Disabled Ontario Works), a program run by Watton Employment Services that assists disable people who might need extra attention. It is only one of many.

But the Tories have set out a clear agenda to punish those on welfare. Shortly after taking office, the rates were cut by 22 per cent. Then, the Ontario Works program, set up by the Tories to push people back to work, was put in place. It is running full steam in Northumberland. Over the past year, 393 people did workfare, the forced volunteerism program introduced several years ago by the province. Just to make sure nobody in the county is slacking off, the province has mandated a 30 per cent increase in that number for the upcoming year. That goal should be no problem, said McKee Demczyk.

The local economy is keeping the welfare numbers low. In April, 839 cases were on the books, compared to 1,061 cases at the same time last year. It is figures like these that provide Baird and other Tories with a sense of accomplishment.

So if things are working, the Tories should be leaving well enough alone. But no. Filled with arrogance masked as political principles, Baird is about to lead his party into a battle that cannot be won. Already  Information and Privacy Commissioner Anne Cavoukian has raised serious concerns about the program infringing on people’s right to privacy. A long list of experts on addiction have emerged saying addicts who are not self-motivated to seek help will fail.

Beth Bellaire, co-ordinator of academic upgrading for Fleming, said students in the literacy classes who do not want to be there end up making it difficult for all students, including those who are serious about getting assistance.

This is not to mention the long list of unanswered questions like: What is to become of those who do not take the mandatory training or addiction counselling? Just ask the OPP, Port Hope or Cobourg police force what will happen.

Instead of providing the “hand up rather than a hand out” for those unable to work, these policies are a slap in the face. The provincial government should be less worried about micro-managing welfare and stick to keeping the system accountable in other ways. The recent verification program is a good example. Random cases are reviewed to ensure nobody is cheating the system. While it does not nail a lot of fraud, it does ensure all the checks and balances are working.

Local politicians should be hounding their county representatives to act swiftly and loudly against Baird’s proposals. He has promised to bring them into effect, but has not said when, so there is some time if politicians move quickly.

County council should be taking every action to stop this for many reasons. If the ludicrious nature of the polices is not enough to inspire protest, then the cost of running mandatory addiction and literacy testing should get everyone revved up. The staff, equipment and administration costs will be through the roof.

Warden Bill Finley is a long-standing member of the social services committee. His experience and background make him an ideal candidate to lead this charge. So far during his mandate, Finley has done little to inspire confidence in his leadership. Closed-door meetings, meandering policies and whining about amalgamation just don’t cut it. This can be his opportunity to shine and demonstrate to taxpayers he has some heartfelt passion about his job. And it is for something worth fighting for – people’s dignity. He can set an example for the rest of county council. Let’s see some compassion and courage from our leaders rather than the small-minded bickering that appears to be a hallmark of county politics this term.

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