© 1997 Karen Selick
Ontario’s Workfare Farce
An edited version of this article first appeared in the October, 1997 issue of Canadian Lawyer.  If you wish to reproduce this article, click here for copyright info.


Ontario’s Workfare Farce

The Ontario government’s latest venture into welfare reform is a pathetic attempt to mollify overburdened taxpayers without offending the poverty lobby.  They might as well forget it.  The two goals are incompatible.
"Free lunches are out; workfare is in," says the government.  Welfare recipients, including single mothers of children over three, will have to work for their benefits.  Well, maybe work is too strong a word.  Let’s just say they’ll have to be visibly putting in time--17 hours a week, to be exact. They’ll have three choices:  community service work, job hunting using a municipally hired "job broker", or job training.  What a farce.

Community service work is simply work that no-one considers important enough to pay for.  If the beneficiaries of these services aren’t willing to spend their own money on them, and even charities won’t bite, why waste taxpayers’ money on these tasks?  Surely it would be better to give the money back to taxpayers as tax cuts and let them spend it on things someone really wants, thereby creating jobs in fields that are self-sustaining.

The introduction of municipal job brokers will merely duplicate services already available through commercial employment agencies.  Creating more placement agencies won’t create more placements to fill.

The third alternative, job training, is simply a method of deferring recognition of the other two failures.  It’s hard enough for highly motivated students to predict what course of studies will lead to a remunerative career, but when your motivation is qualifying for the dole, how much thought will you put into choosing your curriculum?  Years ago, when I handled legal aid cases and knew many welfare mothers, I always marveled at their nearly unanimous aspirations to become social workers.  What will all the social workers do once all the welfare recipients have become social workers themselves?   

The foolishness of these programs demonstrates that the Harris government has simply swallowed unthinkingly the poverty lobby’s constant refrain: "Welfare recipients want to work, but there’s no work out there." 

The truth is there’s no such thing as a shortage of work.  Human needs and wants are infinite.  What’s in short supply is courage—the courage to say things that will make you terribly unpopular with the poverty lobby. 

There are three reasons why individuals—including welfare recipients--might prefer to work:  first, so they won’t be a burden on others; second, so they can achieve a more affluent lifestyle than welfare provides; third, because work can be more mentally stimulating than loafing around.

Different people experience these sentiments in different proportions and intensities. Some individuals are so averse to burdening others that they’d rather perform boring, low-paid labour than accept a handout.   Others don’t feel guilty at all.  Poverty activists have convinced them they’re performing an important service for society just by raising kids and being consumers. 

Some people consider their leisure activities more stimulating than any job could ever be, but they need more money than welfare provides to afford their pastimes.  Others have frugal habits and find welfare benefits adequate.
In short, it’s simply not true that all welfare recipients prefer to work under all circumstances.  I’ve met many who have been content not to.  It depends on their psychological make-up and the alternatives offered to them.  For some, reducing benefits would send them job-hunting pronto.  For others, increasing their feelings of guilt or shame would tip the balance.  For still others, only a job offer they consider sufficiently dignified will do it.

Meanwhile, self-employed cleaning ladies in Toronto are earning $18 to $20 an hour of untaxed cash.  This is way beyond what welfare pays.  In fact, it’s equivalent to over $50,000 per year of taxable income.  Good household help is scarce, as these prices prove, but there’s certainly no shortage of domestic work to be done.  The average married mother employed full-time outside the home still spends 32 hours a week doing household work, while her husband devotes an additional 20 hours.

Poverty activists often extol the idea of mandatory work-sharing.  Well, here’s the perfect opportunity for voluntary work-sharing.  Unfortunately, working people are taxed so heavily that few families can afford to hire household help, a practice that was once commonplace for even the middle class.

Until the early years of this century, domestic service employed more people than any other occupation except farming.  It was not considered demeaning.  It offered doweryless young women a chance to accumulate savings so they and their future husbands could eventually buy land or a business.  It offered training in skills they would need later, sometimes including literacy.  

What about the child care problem?  Historians report that in previous centuries, widows would form small groups to share child care duties while they worked.  Single welfare mothers could do the same today, were it not for the poverty activists screaming about the indignity of it all. 

What a sorry state of affairs: the overworked middle class see their taxes used to pay people to do nothing, or to do make-work jobs, while they themselves have to do the "demeaning" work they could hire someone to do if only they weren’t being fleeced by the welfare state.  

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June 18, 2000