Category Archives: Social Issues

The Sticky Net

I had no idea the requirements for welfare were so draconian.

You don’t have to be sick to visit a doctor, so we don’t believe individuals should be virtually penniless before they qualify for social assistance.

Governments and financial experts have preached for decades about the need to build savings. But, as the welfare rules prove, those very savings come back to hurt low-income people.

A former factory worker may have been able to accumulate a modest amount of savings in an RRSP. Faced with the shock of going to zero income, that person would undoubtedly visit a welfare office. They would be told to come back when they have cashed in their savings and spent the proceeds. This is one of the reasons welfare caseloads do not soar immediately in the onset of economic weakness. But the requirement of destitution also explains in part why the caseloads continue to rise.

Ironically, cashing out the RRSP means the unemployed workers will face a tax bill the following year for which there is no capacity to pay.

Moreover, the individual will have no extra resources to bridge toward a new job which may require relocation and retraining. This individual gets caught up in the social safety web and struggles to get out well after the economy recovers.


Long, slow goodbye

Gold Key Motel, May 1961

Living in our youth-centric culture, I’m always surprised how long we are old. It seems unfair, from my vantage point a generous few decades away, that if we are lucky enough to be long-lived those years are mostly tacked on the end.

A depressing quote from a story about a fairly healthy centenarian.

Mrs. Mackenzie has it all going on except any kind of reasonable life expectancy. In the purgatory of assisted living everything is subtraction. It’s a high school where graduation is only a negative thing–death or the nursing home. This is the underlying current, the insistent minor key bass line walking below every illusory melody of independence.

In assisted living, there is a sorting out of who sits where in the dining room, who gets invited to drinks before dinner, and who replaces the just-deceased member of the bridge foursome. The more competent want to surround themselves with their peers. The frailer minds and body are unwelcome omens of the probable future.There’s a natural sorting out as in high school. Not in terms of the popular kids, the jocks, the hippies, the goths, and the nerds, but a more callous sorting out in terms of cognitive capacity. If you are not capable of holding up your end of the conversation, you’re not going to be invited to a table where there is a conversation. Lag a few steps behind the others, and they will cut you out of the herd.

We should give more thought to our final years. Although it’s natural to avoid the unpleasant thought of our mortality (if only aging was a simple matter of retirement and Viagara), it’s a reality better prepared for now than suffered through later. I certainly do not want to go through high school again.

(And, I should gracelessly add, there are people today who would benefit if we made the institutional and societal changes which are in our self-interest.)

(photo credit)

Some people are just monsters

Who need a soul when you can have $15,000?

Two Toronto city councillors voted against the donation of two decommissioned ambulances to a city in El Salvador.

Even when times were tough for everyone during the Great Depression, people in Ontario sent railcars full of food to Saskatchewan, where things were even worse.

A recession is no excuse to be a jerk.

Dispersing poverty: Plan B

Concentrated poverty is a wretched thing, but the solution is not so simple as tearing down the projects. Hanna Rosin wrote about the unintended consequences of Section 8 housing in last summer’s Atlantic. Some excerpts follow (like most things in the Atlantic, it is a bit too long for casual reading but well worth the effort):

Ed Goetz, a housing expert at the University of Minnesota, is creating a database of the follow-up research at different sites across the country, “to make sense of these very limited positive outcomes.” On the whole, he says, people don’t consistently report any health, education, or employment benefits. They are certainly no closer to leaving poverty. They tend to “feel better about their environments,” meaning they see less graffiti on the walls and fewer dealers on the streets. But just as strongly, they feel “a sense of isolation in their new communities.” His most surprising finding, he says, “is that they miss the old community. For all of its faults, there was a tight network that existed. So what I’m trying to figure out is: Was this a bad theory of poverty? We were intending to help people climb out of poverty, but that hasn’t happened at all. Have we underestimated the role of support networks and overestimated the role of place?”

I also met La Sasha Rodgers, who was 19 when Dixie was torn down (now she’s 21). “A lot of people thought it was bad, because they didn’t live there,” she told me. “But it was like one big family. It felt like home. If I could move back now, the way it was, I would.” She moved out to a house in South Memphis with her mother, and all the little cousins and nieces and nephews who drift in during the day. She doesn’t know anyone else on the block. “It’s just here,” she said about her new house. Rodgers may not see them right out her window, but she knows that the “same dope dealers, the same junkies” are just down the block. The threats are no less real, but now they seem distant and dull, as if she were watching neighborhood life on TV. At Dixie, when there were shots at the corner store, everyone ran out to see what was happening. Now, “if somebody got shot, we wouldn’t get up to see.”

Dixie Homes was a complex of two- and three-story brick buildings on grassy plots. It was, by all accounts, claustrophobic, sometimes badly maintained, and occasionally violent. But to its residents, it was, above all, a community. Every former resident I spoke to mentioned one thing: the annual Easter-egg hunt. Demonizing the high-rises has blinded some city officials to what was good and necessary about the projects, and what they ultimately have to find a way to replace: the sense of belonging, the informal economy, the easy access to social services. And for better or worse, the fact that the police had the address.

Architect Teddy Cruz may have found a middle ground between dissipating poverty and dissipating social supports: planned slums. In GOOD:

Behind the precariousness of low-income communities, says Cruz, there is a sophisticated social collaboration: People share resources, make use of every last scrap, and look out for each other. Cruz is incorporating this resourcefulness into the planning of two new developments, in San Ysidro, a border-town community in southern San Diego, and in Hudson, New York. If they work as planned, these projects will become powerful case studies for a new approach to urban development that could be implemented across the country.

In collaboration with the nonprofit Casa Familiar, the San Ysidro development will include 30 housing units alongside spaces where residents can run small businesses. The model also accounts for sweat equity, allowing people who help with construction to gain rent credits for their work. Hudson, meanwhile, may not be a border community, but Cruz says the same conflicts are present—specifically, “a huge gap between rich and poor.” Cruz’s plan aims to vault the income gap with developments on several lots that are integrated into the city. The developments will include 60 housing units, playgrounds, a market, urban agriculture, and job-training facilities, all managed by a coalition of nonprofit groups.

(photo source)

I beg to differ

From an editorial in a Sun Media paper:

The LCBO established a “social responsibility” mandate in 1993, and uses the price of its products as a tool for controlling alcohol consumption.

The implication is clear: The average person can’t be trusted to drink responsibly if the price is set too low.

In other words, the government knows what is best for you, and will impose its will by charging more for the products it sells.

This hike in the price of beer is just another way for the government to social engineer the behaviour of the citizenry, and that should not be the role of a democratic government.

This most sensational evidence to disprove the notion that an average person can be trusted when confronted with low prices is the now-infamous trampling of a Walmart shopper on Black Friday.

In all seriousness, increasing the price is a straightforward and effective way do discourage consumption. There’s nothing new or sinister about a government changing the tax structure (which is essentially what a price change at the LCBO is) to change people’s behaviour. We do the same thing with tobacco products. This is just the flip side of tax breaks for things we want to encourage, like saving for retirement or buying energy efficient light bulbs.

Sunday Selections

Jagged Little Pill

The next president of the French Fifth Republic will be conservative Nicolas Sarkozy.

From an outsider’s perspective, I can see that there are aspects of French government that need to change, and Sarkozy is the better candidate to make those changes. Unemployment, especially among youth and immigrants, needs to be addressed.

But I can say with confidence that if I were a French citizen I would have voted for the socialist candidate, Royal. I would be worried that Sarkozy would take the reforms too far – taking the “French” out of France. The country has a good thing going for the many people who can take advantage of what the welfare state has to offer.

Two less-than-desirable options. Two choices fraught with doubt. Too much change or too much of the same. The devil we know or the devil we don’t. It’s too bad the centrist candidate didn’t make it onto the second ballot.

There’s no question France is in for a well-needed tune-up. Is it going to involve merely inflating the tires or replacing the whole engine?

[photo credit | protesters in Paris]