Why can’t the poor appeal those bum welfare rulings?
Why can’t the poor appeal those bum welfare rulings?
OUR VIEW/YOUR VIEW
A WELFARE MOTHER in Vancouver asks the city for $105 a month in rent support, but a caseworker says she can have only $90; a child whose parents are on the public rolls in Hamilton, Ont., needs a hearing aid, but an administrator decides the expense is not essential; a needy family in Halifax want more money for food, but a welfare officer refuses to raise their monthly payment; an Indian in northern Saskatchewan complains that his public support has been cut from $200 to eight dollars a month because he joined the Red Power movement, but his complaints are ignored.
Should these people have the right to appeal? My own answer is: Yes, of course, but that answer is not as simple as it appears. It goes to the whole question of whether welfare is a right or a privilege, whether it is a support we hand out to unfortunates to get them through a rough patch, or an essential ingredient of our society, a bank that any Canadian can call on. simply because he is a Canadian, and poor.
If welfare is charity, then it can be given or withheld, partially given or partially withheld, on the judgment of the donor — whether that donor is a Junior Leaguer with a bucket of soup or the state with a sheaf of cheques. Oh, there must be some degree of fairness in the distribution and rules to make sure the money isn’t wasted, but all that can be left to the professionals. There is no need to involve the recipient. His role is to take what-
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ever he is given with good grace, and be glad; for him to argue that he has a right to more, that he must be given housing and blankets and food and money simply because he is poor, is a monstrous perversion. That’s like the dogs in the Humane Society demanding better kennels.
But if welfare is a right, then the ground rules change. If I am a welfare client applying for support in a city where the maximum monthly assistance available is $308, and some caseworker decides I am only entitled to $250, he may be cheating me of $58 a month, and I must have some way to appeal from him. More than that, 1 must be told I can appeal, and helped to do so, or my right is useless. He is no more entitled to deprive me, because I am poor, than he would be entitled to grab off E. P. Taylor’s oldage pension, because E. P. is rich.
In any reasonably civilized society, welfare must be a right. The alternative is to accept two classes of people; those who are entitled to adequate food and shelter because they can pay for them, and those who may be allowed to freeze and starve because they cannot pay (or some middle ground, in which it is possible for them to freeze and starve a little, because they can pay a little). The notion of the deserving poor — as opposed to those undeserving bums who do not really feel the pangs of hunger, whose children do not really mind the cold — has long since been discarded. At least it’s been discarded in theory.
In practice, in Canada, we treat welfare as a right in principle, but a privilege in fact; we provide the machinery for recipients to appeal the decisions that govern their lives, but we do our damnedest to keep them from finding out about the machinery, or using it. When the Canada Assistance Plan was passed in 1966, the provinces were required to set up appeal procedures before they could qualify for federal grants (theory); however, getting the appeal boards established in provinces where they did not already exist proved slow and difficult (fact).
In Ontario, for instance, no Board of Review was formed until 1969, and it was the studied policy of the Department of Social and Family Services not to let the poor folks know about it. Any welfare client who wanted to appeal the treatment meted out to him was required ^to apply on a “Form 6,” but he was not told this, and no supply of the forms was ever distributed to welfare administrators. He couldn’t appeal, even if he somehow found out about the procedure. The issue was forced last spring, when the NDP filibustered the department’s
supply vote, demanding an assurance from the minister, John Yaremko, that applicants would be informed of their right to appeal. Yaremko refused to give the assurance, for which he was asked 78 times over the four-day filibuster. Finally, Premier John Robarts spoke to Yaremko privately, the assurance was given, and the vote passed. By this time, the appeal board had lumbered into motion and opened hearings in Peterborough; in one of its first cases, it rejected an appeal to help buy batteries for a child’s hearing aid on the ground that such a purchase was beyond the board’s jurisdiction.
Even where appeal boards have existed for some time, they are not widely used. Manitoba has had a board in operation since 1961 and, up until mid-1969, it had heard only 105 cases and allowed 33 appeals. Considering the thousands of welfare decisions made every year in Manitoba, decisions directly affecting the way people live, where they sleep, how they eat, this record suggests either that the appeal procedure is little known or that the province’s social workers have a penchant for infallibility that should make them the envy of popes and baseball umpires.
Anyone who has ever watched social workers knows they are as fallible as the rest of us. I once saw a welfare officer in the Arctic lop an Eskimo off the rolls on the ground that he was “a lazy so-and-so, and a little starving will do him good.” There must be a check on this kind of abuse of power, even if that check turns out to be a nuisance; and, if the experience of other nations is anything to go by, it would indeed be a nuisance. In England, where welfare appeals are widely used, Tony Lynes of the Child Poverty Action Group became an advocate for poor people appealing supplementary benefit awards, and won 91.5% of his cases. Clearly, Lynes is a powerful advocate; clearly, too, a system whose decisions can be upset nine times out of 10 on further..reflection needs to be confronted by powerful advocates.
We need a Tony Lynes in Canada. We need a lot of them. We need to learn that welfare is a right, not a charity, that social workers are not gods, but mediators, whose writs are subject to appeal like other mediators’. To make this kind of change will be expensive and, for many welfare administrators, unsettling. Not to make it, to continue with the pious hypocrisy of today, to ignore the rising expectation and the gathering wrath of our slums and ghettos, may be even more expensive, and a good deal more unsettling, for all of us. □
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