Ontarians getting income support aren’t gaming the system

OPINION: Education and social assistance helped me get out of poverty. Others need help now to get through COVID-19. Stop blaming them for something that’s not their fault
By Nam Kiwanuka - Published on May 12, 2020
A Canada Emergency Response Benefit cheque. (Lars Hagberg/CP)

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When I was 16 years old, I found myself without a home, so I applied for social assistance. In the mornings before I went to school, I worked at Wendy’s, earning minimum wage. The amount I received from social assistance didn’t cover rent and living expenses. Some days after school, I would go back to Wendy’s to cover another shift. Somehow, between juggling a part-time job and going to high school, I graduated and pursued a university education. I knew that getting an education was my best bet if I wanted to get out of poverty.

I couldn’t have graduated from high school without government support. It allowed me to access a world that someone like me, who’d grown up in poverty, could never otherwise have dreamed of.

Since the coronavirus pandemic hit world markets, governments around the world have had to step in with programs to help stabilize economies. The federal government in Canada has developed several initiatives, including the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, to support employers and employees. Last week, federal Conservative leader Andrew Scheer suggested that the government’s wage benefits were preventing people from looking for work. 

“We’ve called on the government to have a more progressive approach to the CERB and to have a gradual type of reduction of the benefits so that it’s always better off for Canadians to work,” Scheer said during a press conference. “A gradual phase-out of the benefit as people earn more and more, we believe, would encourage and incentivize people to re-enter the workforce.”

He also added, “It always makes sense for people to work. People are always better off for taking available work.”

The suggestion that Canadians are choosing not to work — and not simply out of a job because of, you know, a global pandemic — seems to imply that folks would rather take money from the government than put in an honest day’s work.

The real problem isn’t that $2,000 might disincentivize people from looking for work. The real problem is how people can live on that amount, considering, for example, that the average rent in Canada, as of March, was $1,842.

Scheer did point out the absurdity of the fact that, if a recipient were to make even a dollar over $1,000, they would no longer be eligible for the $2,000. 

“So, right now, people can earn $1,000, but if they earn $1,001, they lose the entire benefit,” he said. “As more and more businesses reopen on a gradual basis, we believe that there will be many scenarios where somebody could earn $1,200, $1,300 a month but will be faced with a very difficult decision as to whether or not they would forgo the entire benefit, especially given some of the uncertainty.” 

Yes, that part: “the uncertainty.” Through no fault of their own, millions of Canadians are facing financial uncertainty. This isn’t about folks not doing things the right way and being fired from their jobs; this is about the disruption caused by a global pandemic, and people trying to survive the best they can. As of May 10, more than 11 million Canadians had applied for CERB, a scenario none of us could have foreseen a few months ago.

This idea that people would rather game the system than make a so-called honest living isn’t new. Work that’s done in the home has been devalued and dismissed as not worthy of pay. As parents try to juggle working from home while homeschooling their children, the magnitude of the work it takes to take care of children is clear. The myth of the stay-at-home mom lying on a couch eating bonbons has been busted wide open.

So much of our identity comes from what we do for a living, yet this pandemic is highlighting the chasm between the jobs we value as a society and those that we have come to depend on since the stay-at-home emergency orders were declared. People who don’t have the luxury of working from home, people deemed essential workers, are owed more than the hero moniker.

We believe that people living in poverty choose to do so. We believe that those who are rich deserve to be rich and have earned their money. We assume that poor people choose to be poor because they don’t work hard, are lazy, and would rather receive money from the government. Why don’t we have that same suspicion of rich people? Why don’t we accuse them of gaming the system? Why do we assume that rich people work hard? Why can’t they ever be lazy and unworthy of their money?

Being poor is taxing. You are always worried about making money to meet your needs. You sometimes have to make bad decisions out of necessity, and you don’t have the luxury of planning or thinking long term. You work hard for minimal pay, often at multiple jobs, and you hope that, somehow, you will make it. 

Which brings me to something I learned about only recently: the idea of social capital — another form of wealth that is not afforded many living outside circles of wealth or connection. Yes, I worked hard to complete high school and to put myself through university. Along the way, I ended up living in a rooming house. There were days when I was so desperate that I made bad decisions, taking out student loans with outrageous interest that drove me further into a financial hole. Thankfully, with time and luck, I was able to walk back those bad decisions. 

However, I never would have been able to create the career I have if it hadn’t been for social capital, if I hadn’t known someone who knew someone who could help get me in the door. I worked hard, mostly on an empty stomach — I used to buy a Subway sub and divide it up into pieces that I ate throughout the day. If I hadn’t made it, would I be blamed for having chosen to live in poverty? If I hadn’t been able to pay off my student loans within a year, instead of the 20 years the banks had expected? If I hadn’t gotten a well-paying job out of university? Even now, there are times I feel out of place in certain environments because I will always see the world from a place of not-having. 

So much of who we are or can become is determined by situations that are beyond our control. Yes, of course, there are people who exploit the system — but we shouldn’t make the assumption that only one class does. Especially when we’re all just trying to make it to the other side of this.

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