Double Whammy on the Desperate in Ontario

ACORN Canada Board Meeting

Hamilton         The ACORN Canada board and annual general meeting was in full force before the biennial convention was scheduled to begin in Hamilton, Ontario. Hamilton is a former steel-making, industrial city along Lake Ontario, roughly midway between Toronto, the queen city of Canada, and Buffalo, New York.  Hamilton is having a revival of sorts, but that has also meant more pressure on affordable housing for low-and-moderate income families in the city.  It wasn’t long in the leadership meeting before these issues came front and center in the conversation.

Lower income families are caught in a double bind on housing between rapacious landlords trying to take advantage of galloping gentrification and new anti-poor policies of the conservative government in the province led by Doug Ford, something of a Trump-wannabe.  In Ontario clawbacks are still king, unlike British Columbia where ACORN led a victorious campaign to stop “clawbacks,” which are forced deductions in welfare-related payments to offset any income received by recipients of aid.

We’re not talking big money, but it’s critical for family support.  In Ontario, a single person on welfare receives $656 monthly; a single person with one child, $941; and a couple with two children, $1,173. A single person on ODSP or Ontario Disability Support Program receives $1,098 monthly; a single person with one child, $1,515; and a couple with two children, $1,791.  Getting a little bit extra in some month would be a godsend, and certainly if the policy were designed to support independence, rather than acting punitively towards the lower income, it would be seen as a godsend.

Landlords in Hamilton, like one of the largest in the downtown area, Malleum, with whom ACORN has been campaigning, specialize in evicting renters or renovictions, claims that apartment units are being renovated in order to remove tenants.   One of the main tactics in renovictions has been to offer tenants a couple of hundred dollars in moving or relocation money by making the case that they are going to be evicted anyway, so they might as well take the money to move because of the extra expense.

The Hamilton ACORN leaders told the story of one of their members, named Elizabeth, who had agreed with Malleum to relocate and find another place, and accepted the money to pay for the move.  She duly reported her changing address and the moving payment to the welfare.  The day she moved she went to collect her check and found that it was zero.  The province had clawed back every cent claiming that the moving money was actual income, leaving her with nothing but the double whammy of extra expenses for moving and relocation and no income support for the month.  Outrageous!

The leaders bounced around various ideas to stop this two-pronged attack on lower income families.  Could they block this at the Hamilton level, since it was unlikely that they could win at the provincial level?  Could they get a credit union to create an account or have some other third party, take the payments when negotiated fairly rather than used to facilitate evictions, so that the money would not count as income?

One-minute leaders were talking about policies like rent control, landlord licensing, inclusionary zoning, and other anti-gentrification measures to protect tenants, but the next minute they were dealing with the real-world immorality and family crises fomented by existing policies with little purpose other than to punish.

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The Poor Need Cash

New Orleans       Other countries are increasingly getting the message:  the poor need cash.  It’s not enough in the lowest income categories to stake a claim on education, training, or jobs, especially low paying jobs inadequate to support families.

Africa’s Tanzania’s welfare scheme is called the Productive Social Safety Net and provides at about $13 per month.  Ethiopia’s program was only in the rural countryside, but has now expanded to the cities as well.  From 2000 to 2015, the countries of sub-Saharan Africa launched an average of 14 new programs per year, up from seven per year between 2001 and 2009.  Brazil saw huge gains with its Bolsa program of cash incentives to the poor.

Admittedly, these programs are meager in comparison with European social service provisions, but even some of the weakest economies in Europe still realize that cash is king for the poor.  Italy is now guaranteeing that its poorest will at least have the equivalent of $10,640 per year by topping off whatever income or benefits up to that and investing almost $9 billion to do so.  Even some policy makers and legislators in the United States are reckoning with the problem of cash for the poor as technology and corporatism try to force customers to handle their point-of-sale costs by eliminating cash.  Cities like Philadelphia and states like New Jersey are concerned that banning paper money amounts to discrimination and are passing laws to prevent cashless stores.

Recently, I have started noticing this more for two reasons.  First, I lost my credit cards going through a TSA line on way to Germany, Albania, Bulgaria, and Ireland recently, and had to depend solely on cash in foreign countries, heightening my awareness.  More seriously, I read a painful and jarring book on my travels, $2.00 a Day:  Living on Almost Nothing in America by Kathryn Edin and Luke Shaefer.  After fifty years of organizing lower income families, the book didn’t tell me anything new as much as it was a vivid reminder at how little some things have changed and even worsened for the very poor during this period, especially after President Clinton’s so-called welfare reform.

One point that was inescapable though was how badly the very poor, living on little or nothing, are desperate for cash and the lengths that they are forced to go in order to obtain it in a period of declining to nonexistent cash welfare benefits.  Edin and Shaefer are truth tellers so there’s no sugar in this coffee.  They compare how much the discount rate is for bartering food stamps for cash in rural areas as opposed to cities.  This is real life, and it hurts.  Yes, it’s illegal to sell food stamps, but it’s a double bind for the very poor, if they have to have cash for utility bills or school clothing, it also means that they have less food with the increased risks.  Their stories of informal labor and “special friends” remind me of my days organizing with welfare rights when the ladies used to talk about the men who “brought them groceries” in exchange for tender favors.  The very poor have to do what has to be done in order to survive.  That’s not a social welfare system but a survival mechanism, and a scandal for the world’s richest country.

Perhaps even more heartbreaking and enraging for me to read was their report that the obstacles to applying for and receiving what is left of cash welfare through the TANF program are now so high in most states that many of the very poor believe that either welfare no longer exists or it is not worth the time and trouble to apply because of the constant rejections.  In the war against the poor that just adds more numbers to the body count.

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