canadas real welfare rolls

A report released this week by the National Council on Welfare reveals that most Canadians living on social assistance can’t afford decent…

A report released this week by the National Council on Welfare reveals that most Canadians living on social assistance can’t afford decent housing or adequate food. According to council chairman John Rook, “There is nowhere on welfare where it’s decent living.”

Imagine for instance trying to raise a child by yourself in Alberta’s booming — or busting — economy on $13,703 a year, or surviving with a disability on $8,440. Becoming Canada’s richest province hasn’t changed the fact that Alberta has the lowest social assistance rates, but for most Canadians, no matter where, life on welfare means grinding poverty.

The National Council on Welfare is an arm’s-length advisory body to the minister of Human Resources and Social Development. The report measures welfare incomes based on the benchmark of the Low Income Cut-Off, or LICO, the line below which a household’s economy is considered unsustainable. A couple with two children in British Columbia gets only 60 per cent of this amount.

Many working Canadians are less than sympathetic to the plight of welfare recipients. I work for my money, they say, why should I have to support a bunch of people who don’t work for theirs? This attitude is certain to soften for many as they see their own job prospects, and those of their children, fade into the worldwide credit crunch.

But as credit tightens and talk turns to recession or depression in the world economy, it’s not welfare for the poor that dominates discussion, but bailouts for the rich. After all, if General Motors is allowed to collapse, many thousands of Canadians will find themselves in dire straits. For the purposes of this narrative, it’s important to ignore the many thousands who already live in hopeless poverty.

Those who are appalled at the idea of forking out billions in taxpayers’ money to rescue failing corporations might take comfort in the knowledge that there’s nothing new in any of this. According to a report released this week by the Fraser Institute, Canadian companies have received $182 billion in “corporate welfare” in the past 12 years.

Corporate welfare, as defined by the Fraser Institute, a right-wing think-tank, means direct cash subsidies, and does not include the billions in tax cuts corporations have enjoyed during the same period. So while a succession of prime ministers have overseen a steady downward trend in support for the poor, they’ve managed to come up with a billion and a half dollars a year to prop up corporations.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has spoken against what he calls “the trap” of the “available plethora of loans, grants, and subsidies” in the past, though he’s done little to put a stop to it since taking office. Now he’s musing about the necessity of bailing out the Big Three automakers, for fear of “(putting) our sector in severe disadvantage.”

It seems that, if the US hands the auto-giants a big bailout package, Canada will have no choice but to do the same, or risk sending the entire industry south. But there will be conditions attached. As Harper says, “There’s no blank cheque coming from the government of Canada.”

The question arises, what will those conditions be?

Imagine a world in which those bailouts were dependant on a commitment to produce energy-efficient cars in low-impact factories. Imagine a promise to restrict executive salaries, and to pay a fair share of taxes so that we don’t have to keep cutting services to the poor. Picture the Big Three promising to bring home all the manufacturing jobs they’ve already exported to China and Mexico.

OK, sorry to wander off into dreamland there. Judging from past performance Harper will no doubt want guarantees of wage reductions on the assembly line and limits on pay equity and workers’ rights to organize.

The Big Three will get their bailout, and others will follow. Canada will run deficits if need be to meet their demands. Later, to ensure that those deficits will be short- term and temporary, the government, whether Conservative or Liberal, will slash social spending. Canada’s desperate poor will become poorer still.

 It may not be fair, but it’s what we’ve always done.

Al Pope won the 2002 Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.

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