A Glimpse Into The Social Assistance Experience


If you’ve never needed it, I doubt you’ve thought a great deal about what it would be like to be on the receiving end of the Social Assistance experience. Your knowledge and assumptions are probably based on what you hear in the news when an individuals’ story is profiled, from a candidate around election time or perhaps you’ve got a friend or family member who has shared a little of their own experience.

It has been my great honour and privilege to serve and support those receiving such benefits in two Municipalities; Toronto and Durham in the Greater Toronto Area of Ontario for a total of 21 years and counting. In addition to this experience, my wife has 16 or so years of experience herself working in another municipality. While my experience is extensive, I’ve never been on the receiving end myself, and I hope the choices I’ve made and continue to make into the future don’t land me in such need.

That being said, if the time comes when I’m in need, I know now that I’d be thankful the support system was there to help get me through such times until once more I became financially self-sufficient.

It can be a very demeaning and embarrassing process to apply for welfare. In Ontario Canada it’s referred to now as Ontario Works, but to many in receipt, it is and will always be welfare.  It all starts with a phone call to apply in which someone in need talks to someone in what is akin to a call centre. The conversation while initiated by someone in need is pretty much led by the receiving employee asking preset questions. Full name, address, SIN and Health numbers, rent/mortgage information, family members, assets, banking information, investments, etc.; all of which will need to be verified at an in-person meeting to determine eligibility.

I get that it can strip one of their pride and self-worth. With every document you hand over to some stranger, with every disclosure of your personal circumstances such as whether you’ve been abused or the name of your child’s father or mother and where they might be, you give up a little dignity. While most in this field are very good at getting this information in a caring compassionate way, no amount of empathy can change that stuff you’d normally keep private and confidential must be fully disclosed.

Now the agenda of the person in need is pretty clear. Almost all the time, there’s a stated desperation present or looming; rent and food. Get approved and the rent gets paid and people eat. Get denied and a missed rental payment eviction and hunger, a visit from the child welfare authorities, homelessness, begging and worse, having to steal to survive.

If as my piece began you’ve not had to experience social assistance, maybe you’re completely unaware of the community resources you’ll have to tap into. Where would you find the kitchens, thrift stores, donation centers, etc.? If you needed your ID replaced to get many of these benefits, would you know where to go and remember it’s likely you’d have to walk or take public transportation; taking your child or children with you everywhere if you were a sole support parent without a trusted, reliable childcare provider.

Now meeting with us in Social Services for many is a good experience in the end. However, in those first few meetings, the anxiety and stress of anticipating what that experience will be like is often influenced by past meetings and stereotypes of government workers. Just as you’ve no doubt got frustrated with being put on hold, re-directed, not getting through to the person you need to talk to etc. when calling for help yourself, the experience can be like that for some. What increases the importance of getting through is the immense pressure and stress of failing to get the help asked for.

Look there are a lot of really good, compassionate and empathetic people in the business of providing social assistance recipients with support. While these are good qualities, what’s really needed in addition are people both knowledgeable and able to share that same knowledge of resources needed in any one person’s situation. Whether it’s a benefit we can issue ourselves or a benefit another service provider offers, connecting people with what they need is imperative.

On the receiving end, people want to be heard, respected, treated with dignity and foremost be a person; not a case, not a number and no, not a client. Most aren’t in receipt by choice. On top of their financial needs, many have multiple barriers to employment including gaps in work history, mental health challenges, anxiety, low self-esteem. You’d be surprised though to find highly educated professionals in receipt of help; people with their Masters and Degrees perhaps. Yes, really.

Hopefully, supporting people in need is done in the way we would wish to be treated were it us on the other side of the table or end of the phone. “Do onto others…” And while we may have our hopes and plans for people, it’s critical to listen and figure out where someone is at any given moment. I mean, are they ready to job search? Would job searching just set them up to fail at the moment? Do they need stable housing first, addiction intervention, counselling, or maybe to volunteer to rebuild a shattered confidence?

Just the briefest glimpse into this experience.

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