Some Newcomers Need Ontario Works

Arguable, nobody wants to sit on their couch all day and not work — try doing it yourself for a week. The novelty of binge watching TV wears off pretty quickly when you have nowhere else you need to be. The “free-loading couch potato” is a negative and unfair stereotype of people receiving Ontario Works, the official title for provincial welfare — or the “dole” if you were born in 1940’s England.

The reality is that many folks on OW are raising their kids, volunteering at food banks, acting as neighbourhood watch, coaching soccer teams, managing their poverty related chronic illnesses and yes, sometimes also watching TV on their couches just like the rest of us.

Three years ago I started a masters of social work. At the time, I didn’t know what OW even stood for. My interest was working in settlement, helping newcomers, like my grandparents, settle into their new communities. Today I realize that OW is a crucial building block, not failure, for many immigrant and refugee folks rebuilding their lives in our region.

Working in social services with newcomers for the past two years has made me re-evaluate what OW means and what it offers to people unable to enter the formal job market.

Let me tell you a true story about a recent newcomer who, for the purpose of confidentiality, I will call Bill. Bill came as a refugee from Syria a year and a half ago with his wife and kids. He was eager to enter the job market, despite not having the opportunity to study English before coming to Canada. He was a truck driver back in Syria, but to do the same job here, he needed a Canadian Language Benchmark of four or higher. The same requirements applied for becoming a taxi driver. Bill’s English was assessed at zero when he first arrived, presenting a steep and intimidating learning curve for someone who hadn’t been in school since he was a boy.

So he opted to drive for Uber. A totally unregulated trade, yet it allowed him to work right away. After three months in this precarious position, without benefits, regular working hours or any job security, he was fired. His customer ratings were too low — too many one and two stars because he couldn’t understand what customers were asking him.

He’s now on OW, and considering the pay and lack of benefits as an Uber driver, it’s a better option for him. People on OW receive a drug card to pay for medications, and some discretionary benefits through their caseworkers, something many of the working lower income community don’t get. With his OW drug card, he is able to provide basic health insurance for each of his dependants, a necessity for someone who has lived through physical and psychological trauma. For Bill, being on OW provides more stability than his job did.

The current rate for OW is about $676 for a single individual, $966 for a parent with one dependant (not including the Canada Child Tax benefit). According to Kaylie Tiessen of the Centre for Policy Alternatives, in 2014 the poverty gap for people living on OW was 59 per cent. While there was a 1.5 per cent hike in rates in October 2016, she argues people receiving OW are living in a greater depth of poverty now than a generation ago. So why is this $676 a month stipend, that comes with a big stigmatizing label, the best option for many people in our community?

The Law Commission of Ontario estimates that nearly 25 per cent of jobs in Ontario could be characterized as precarious work with low wages, no pension and no union representation. With more short term and casual contracts than ever before, OW starts to look more appealing for newcomer folks on the lower rungs of the job ladder.

And for those coveted full time permanent jobs out there? Forbes estimates that half of all available jobs are never advertised. People get shoulder tapped, employers browse their existing networks, or when postings are advertised, familiar names get plucked from the pile. Hiring people who fit in the “organizational culture” can become code for preserving workplace echo-chambers.

What does this mean for newcomers? It means that people like Bill who have been in the country for two years or less and are building their social networks from scratch don’t stand a chance. The KW Community Foundation’s 2016 Vital Signs report states that “typical immigrants do not achieve income comparable to people born in Canada until approximately 20 years after moving here.” Until we broaden our networks, we’ll keep segregating our spheres of influence. Opportunities for people to mingle across socio-economic divisions isn’t happening nearly enough to reduce the appalling 20-year gap in income parity.

Another insight I’ve learned is to stop looking at OW as an utter failure. When I worked at a settlement agency during my masters, my supervisor shared stories about how she had been on OW for her first years in Canada. Social assistance helped her to stay at home with her young son and attend full time ESL classes. Today she supervises 10 people, and is an award winning advocate for newcomers and refugees in our region.

As long as entry level jobs pay less than a living wage, and Kitchener’s childcare costs remain among the highest in the country, OW continues to provide the limited but consistent support newcomer parents need.

And she’s not the only community leader whose past involves OW. This winter I learned that an executive director of a non-profit agency in Kitchener that I highly admire was on OW in her younger years. It’s our loss when we can’t look at OW as part of the journey, rather than the end of the road.

Until we are better able to hire newcomers and immigrants, give people who have no Canadian experience a chance, and offer a living wage with benefits for entry level positions, OW will continue to be a viable option for newcomers.

Not to mention the limiting bureaucracy that disincentivizes any entrepreneurial spirit in folks coming from less formal economies. The blaming of the poor for their lot is a played out easy target. Before we judge someone new to this country for so-called “free-loading,” let’s look at the various ways we’ve made it impossible for them to enter the job market with the language levels or credentials they have.