When I was attending Humber College back in 1982 and 1983, I was studying Recreation Leadership; a program which at the time, I believed would prepare me for a life-long career in the field of Municipal Recreation. I had already attended University where I’d graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology with a Communications Minor.
One of the now curious things about taking that Recreation course was that we made a trip down to Flint, Michigan in the United States of America to see their recreation programs. That in and of itself wasn’t odd at all, but a chance comment by our American host at the time had to do with people who received social assistance in the State. If I’m not mistaken, he said that people there could get social assistance for a maximum of two year’s time, and only for the number of people they originally applied with. So if a woman had a child while on assistance there were no additional funds provided, and the system in the U.S. varied from state to state.
The irony of hearing this is that I’ve built a career not in recreation but in working with those receiving social assistance.
Now here in Ontario Canada, a person could conceivably apply for and receive social assistance (welfare) when they are under 20, receive additional assistance for each member of their immediate family and be on it until they are 65. So while things might have changed since 1983 south of the border, we’ve got one system where someone gets food and shelter money for 2 years and another where the same things are covered for 45 years. Around the globe and in your geographical community, things may vary from these two situations as well.
So whose got it right? Does your view on this depend whether you are in receipt of the financial help or doing the giving via your personal income tax?
One of the things I constantly remind myself of is that people in receipt of social assistance are often among the most vulnerable in our society. I certainly don’t begrudge them the financial help they get because the person getting this financial supplement loses much more than they ever get. It’s no free ride.
Those in receipt of welfare over a long period of time will find the quality of the food they eat is poorer, they develop dental problems more often and issues are more severe. Their overall health is poorer as they see doctors less; they’re often out in adverse weather conditions, living in sub-standard housing, dealing more often with mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, addictions and getting counselling regarding dysfunctional families, abuse, suicidal thoughts, despair and hopelessness.
That, ‘free ride’ as some see it is extremely costly. So it’s no wonder that many on social assistance do want to work and regain their financial independence. But given all the issues in the paragraph above, it becomes increasingly difficult to sustain the focus required to get a job. Add to the list expired certificates, out-of-date experience, old work references, gaps in a resume or CV, lack of reliable transportation inconsistent access to technology and unreliable phone service, and it’s no wonder so few come across to a potential employer as the right candidate.
One of the biggest challenges that these people face, (as if that list above isn’t exhaustive enough) is dealing with people like you and me. Whatever image you carry around with you of the typical social assistance recipient will prejudice for the good or bad how we interact with these people in general. So if you met someone who on first glance who looked together and you discovered they were on welfare, what would be your initial reaction? If you were hiring, would you give them a fair shake or would you buy-in to some of the stereotypes we see in the media and place an extra level of examination on them? Would you see them as lazy, a drain on the system or a future problem?
To be honest, there are some who do set out to stay on assistance. Many, many more however didn’t plan the life they have, and really do want to contribute and be self-supporting. In many of those cases, they just lack the know-how and have multiple barriers to deal with. If we want to say that we truly live in a compassionate society, it is up to us to support our most vulnerable members of that society. Our ‘duty’ or our ‘charity’; call it what you will, is a responsibility that we undertake to provide a safety net for those who for reasons often beyond their control can’t stand on their own.
Many who want to work are themselves grown adults of families that were in receipt of assistance. They may have received poor parenting from those who see completing high school as a lofty goal. College and University is a dream never to even be contemplated. A good job is one that gets them a stable address and decent food, not necessarily one that comes with profit-sharing and trips abroad.
My hope is that you and I come to be just a little more compassionate, a little more understanding, and a tad less judgemental. If you are an employer, that you invest in the person and find yourself a grateful worker in return. Sometimes all it takes is a shift in attitude at our end to start.