Social assistance digs deep ruts in the territory

Alda Henry has been sleeping on a broken mattress for two years. The springs are shot and jab her ribs at night. She can’t afford a new one.

Alda Henry has been sleeping on a broken mattress for two years.

The springs are shot and jab her ribs at night.

She can’t afford a new one.

On social assistance, Henry could get a furniture allowance, but her last two applications were turned down.

“You have to explain why you need these things, and justify it and, even then, sometimes, they turn you down,” said Henry.

“Hopefully, you have written skills.

 “You just feel like you’re begging, and my feeling is sometimes you almost have to be a bloody lawyer in order to build your case and get help.”

Henry, 57, plans to attend Yukon College in the fall. She needs a new mattress before the workload takes its toll.

But even with government funding, Henry might have trouble finding one.

“They don’t give you money for furniture,” said women’s advocate Linda Hilton, who has been on social assistance for years.

“They give you an authorization order which details the exact amount of the item — it’s like a voucher.”

And not all Whitehorse stores accept them.

“For Sears, as a corporate national, that’s not good enough,” said outlet manager Lisa Schellenberg, referring to authorization forms.

“It’s a Sears thing. Items have to be pre-paid for us to order anything.”

Even Superstore has trouble with them, said Hilton.

“I was standing behind someone in line one time, and they were trying to get groceries with an authorization form and Superstore had a hell of a time trying to process it.”

Wal-Mart doesn’t accept authorization orders either, said its assistant manager Victoria Meir.

With Sears and Wal-Mart out of the picture, it’s not easy to meet low-income furniture needs, said Henry.

“It was a struggle and a fight for every single item — to get my eyes checked, to get my teeth fixed — but they did it; I fought it through.

“I’m fairly high functioning according to (social assistance) standards, but what of the people who don’t have the written and verbal skills? Less able people must not receive those services — it seems like it’s so difficult.”

Social assistance recipients can get $500 a year for furniture and appliances.

But most requests are denied, said Henry who, in the past 20 years, has only had one such request approved.

“They usually say it’s a funding issue.”

After granting a request, Social Services requires three different quotes for the item; then, the department chooses the supplier, said departmental spokesperson Pat Living.

“And if Sears or Wal-Mart has the cheapest rate, then we issue a cheque,” said Living. 

Henry and Hilton had never heard of cheques being issued. And, after being pressed, it took Social Services the greater part of a day to deliver this answer.

A major problem is that social assistance rates have not been increased since 1991, but rent and food prices have continued to rise, said Anti-Poverty Coalition co-chair Ross Findlater.

So, to pay for accommodation, social assistance recipients dip into food money.

“We hear this repeatedly,” said Findlater. “And, by the third week of the month, a person has expended so much for accommodation they’re running out of money for food.”

Which is why Whitehorse food programs are overdrawn, said Findlater.

The city needs a food bank, he added.

“We’re spending millions on treating ill health and sickness and yet the facts have been known for several decades now that poverty and poor nutrition play a huge role in ill health, both physically and mentally,” said Findlater.

“So, it seems to me that by putting some serious thought into prevention, this would give people adequate funding for a balanced diet, where people could buy milk and vegetables.”

A single Yukon parent with one child living on social assistance receives $525 for shelter and $318 for basic maintenance, totaling $843 a month. In the winter, they can receive another $425 for fuel and utilities.

A parent receiving the National Child Benefit, or other money, will see their assistance cut, said Findlater.

“And these deductions have never been fair.

“If they are getting $1,000 a year for a kid, as a child-tax benefit, that exact amount, to the cent, is clawed back from their social assistance,” he said.

“So, the most badly-off folk, who require financial assistance, are not gaining a cent, while higher-income people are benefiting from that amount, because it’s not clawed back in their case; they just pay tax on it.”

Hilton receives $600 a month from her ex-husband to support their son. Of this, $200 goes directly into a future schooling fund.

“Even though I can only spend $400 of my child support each month, social assistance still deducts the full $600,” said Hilton.

And any income earned by someone on social assistance is also clawed back, said Findlater.

If they’re trying to get more income for their family, and shed their dependence, they can earn just $100, he said.

“Anything (earned) after that is clawed back,” he said.

“You’d almost think it was a deliberate effort to ensure people don’t get out of their rut.”

The gap between haves and have-nots is growing — that’s well known, yet it continues, said Findlater.

A single mother and child on social assistance will still be short roughly $350 a month after accounting for food, accommodation, heat, laundry and transportation costs, wrote Anti-Poverty Coalition member Melissa Craig in Women and Poverty in the Yukon, a report issued in 2006.

Health officials don’t want social assistance recipients to get too comfortable, said Findlater.

“But believe me, most people receiving it are not comfortable with it, they’d much rather have a reasonable income that made them independent of government.”

“Whenever you’re involved in a social program you feel your independence is compromised,” said Henry.

Many on assistance feel like second-class citizens, said Findlater.

“You never hear about the working poor, and their qualifications,” said Henry, who worked for the government for years.

“There is this general belief that people on social assistance are street people, but this isn’t the case,” she said.