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Welfare plagued with pitfalls

Front-line workers share struggles to help others

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Many people on social assistance are forced to stretch their meagre allowances as far as possible in order to eat and pay the rent.

MELISSA TAIT / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS ARCHIVES Enlarge Image

Many people on social assistance are forced to stretch their meagre allowances as far as possible in order to eat and pay the rent. Photo Store

Manitoba's $440-million welfare system is undermined by the province's intractable housing shortage, by paltry payouts, especially for disabled people, and by some belligerent welfare clients who demand Cadillac service.

That's the picture painted by four front-line caseworkers who spoke this week to the Free Press about the pitfalls of the welfare system. The four workers -- two from Winnipeg, two from rural Manitoba -- handle a total of 860 cases and have more than 30 years of combined experience with income assistance. They agreed to talk to the Free Press on condition of anonymity because they are barred from speaking to the media about their work.

On Tuesday, a new report said food-bank use in Manitoba remains sky-high -- up nearly 50 per cent from five years ago. That was fodder for poverty activists who have long said welfare and disability rates are too low to provide for the basics. They have been pressuring the province to release a review of welfare rates that's been three years in the making. The review will look at, among other things, how rates stack up with the real cost of living and how often people on welfare dip into their food budget to pay the rent.

The four caseworkers said people can live on welfare if they budget very carefully and are lucky enough to get into subsidized housing. For many others, though, welfare is not enough.

"There are people who have lifelong disabilities. They have the same structure of benefits as people on general assistance. It's not doing them justice. It's not allowing them to live with dignity," said one rural caseworker. "The amount of money we provide them is not enough for them to successfully navigate life."

'We deal with people used to getting what they need by being aggressive or by lying to get it...'

-- front-line welfare caseworker

Welfare workers say housing -- the lack of affordable rentals across the province, chaos caused by slum landlords and the terrible state of on-reserve housing that pushes First Nations people into Thompson, The Pas and other towns -- is probably the biggest challenge for people on welfare. Without a subsidized unit, welfare's rental allowance of $285 a month buys only the most marginal unit.

But, cautioned the caseworkers, raising the rental rate as poverty advocates have demanded will only line the pocket of slum landlords.

Instead, one Winnipeg worker wondered why a portion of each new highrise, warehouse conversion or other residential development can't be earmarked for affordable units.

"I've got some great tenants. Give them an opportunity for one of those places and watch them soar. They will never be back" on social assistance, she said.

The caseworkers say their office is where everyone's personal disasters end up, and people expect welfare to be a fix-all. The caseworkers often feel squeezed between two masters.

On one side is the taxpayer who expects his dollars to go to people who really need it, not those who game the system.

On the other side are the truly unemployable, the chronically disabled or the people who swear and cry to get more money.

"We deal with people used to getting what they need by being aggressive or by lying to get it," said the Winnipeg worker. "You are dealing with a population who thinks they should get everything they ask for."

The workers say it can be difficult to nudge clients into jobs when the client might have a Grade 9 education, virtually no work history and no coping skills. Any small thing that goes awry -- a fight with a neighbour, a boyfriend getting out of jail, a hydro disconnection due to an overdue bill -- halts any momentum toward a job or an education.

One caseworker whose clients are all disabled estimates about 70 per cent are "lifers."

"One of the problems with the system is all the other programs -- Canada Pension (Plan), employment insurance -- that aren't doing their job, as far as I'm concerned," he said. "And it all comes down on us."

It doesn't make sense that, when a client eking out a life on welfare disability turns 65, their federal old age programs kick in and they are suddenly making $400 more a month. Recent cuts to employment insurance, a program some clients have paid into all their lives, have also sent more people to the welfare office, he said.

Poverty advocates and welfare recipients have often complained about the incredible bureaucracy involved with social assistance, the endless doctors notes, bank records and other documentation that need to match up with a confusing list of line-item benefits.

The caseworkers said most clients are mired in misinformation and don't understand front-line caseworkers are bound by clear rules and have very little discretion. The paperwork is needed to prevent fraud and to ensure the system is fair to all applicants.

maryagnes.welch@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 9, 2013 A3

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