The following is a speech I gave at a Parkdale Against Poverty meeting on September 23, 2013. We were asked to speak about the provincial government’s plan to eliminate ODSP and move almost everyone onto welfare. The other speaker was John Clarke. You should also check out his piece in The Bullet: “Austerity Agenda Targets the Disabled”.
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We are currently being told that these are times of austerity – times of cutbacks in order to ensure a healthy economy. It is important to think about how it is that poor people are hit disproportionately hard and rich people are getting richer. The richest 1% in the world own 95% of the world’s resources. The worlds 1,210 billionaires own more than all of the property that the poorest half of the world owns – 12 hundred people own more than 3 billion people!
People on OW (Ontario Works or welfare) get $376 a month for shelter while those on ODSP (Ontario Disability Support Plan) get $479 – neither are anywhere close the average rent for a bachelor apartment in Toronto ($837 a month). This means that people don’t have enough money for food and rent – if either. But, here and around the world rich people aren’t being told that they have to tighten their belts – they aren’t told they have to live in substandard housing and make choices between food and rent. In Ontario, there are almost a million people on social assistance, nearly half of them on ODSP.
These two systems – welfare and ODSP were started because poor people fought for them. They were put in place very differently because of deeply troubling notions of who was considered the deserving and who was considered not the deserving poor. Disabled people – or at least certain disabled people are considered deserving so they get paid more while other people are depicted as lazy, as free-loaders so they get less money. This has always been a brilliant way of demonizing people on welfare to the general public and dividing different groups of poor people. It is how people on ODSP could say that they didn’t need to worry about the 21.6% cut to OW in 1995 and it is how people on OW can say that they don’t need to worry about getting rid of ODSP. “It doesn’t affect me” both groups can say. It means that we don’t fight together when we should be united because it is the same people – rich members of government acting in the interest of corporations that are attacking us.
The idea that some people are deserving poor people and others are not IS A LIE! Poor people are poor because we live under an economic system that creates poverty and because our government chooses to do things like cut taxes instead of redistribute wealth to the poor. It chooses to privatize services and sell off housing instead of ensuring that the most needy people in this province get what we need. People on welfare aren’t lazy – corporations and the rich are greedy – that is why people have to collect social assistance because they can’t get jobs because capitalism needs unemployment to function.
Those people who are on ODSP are given more benefits and assistance because they are deemed to be unable to work, are viewed as unproductive. Disabled people’s labour and contributions are extremely devalued. Disabled women are the last hired and the first fired. In 2006, half of employed disabled people make less than $15,000 a year in Canada – I can’t give you a more recent statistic because instead of doing something about it the federal government decided to stop keeping track. And although many disabled people contribute a great deal to our communities, we aren’t given accommodation and supports we need to be able to function in the employment market. Getting rid of ODSP isn’t about making things better for disabled people – it is about tweaking the definition of who is considered the deserving poor. It is about attacking the little stability disabled people have and forcing them into precarious and under paid employment in order to drive wages down across the province. The plan is to make those collecting disability benefits far fewer – if they ever report any employment income they would be kicked off and put on welfare. So those few people who are left on disability benefits would forever be unable to do any work – including selling art, performing, or getting paid even the smallest amounts.
Everyone else, according to the government’s plan so far would lose their benefits – this means people currently on ODSP and those on welfare. I am sure there are many people in this room who, like me, have lost a tooth (or maybe more) because they were on welfare and didn’t have proper dental benefits. The government wants to take those benefits away from pretty much everyone when, instead, we should all have basic dental coverage. Things like orthotics and dental coverage are key to people’s quality of life and the Liberals want to take that away.
We have already seen more people becoming homeless because that same government cut the community start-up benefit and special diet. Now they want to cut or totally remove people’s drug benefits. Make no doubt about it, people will die. We already know that poverty leads to serious and often lifelong health problems – now the government is planning on making that worse!
I have been off of social assistance for a year now. I spent more than the last decade on welfare and then ODSP. The difference in my life between the two – both in terms of how I was treated and in terms of income was huge. That is the case for everyone on ODSP who I know. ODSP is still not enough but it is a great deal better than welfare and I think all of us have a responsibility to work to keep it while we fight to raise the rates for everyone.
Now, what I am talking about may be scary for people currently on ODSP or who are hoping to get on ODSP. I don’t want to mislead you – I think you should be afraid. Anyone who is poor or views themselves as an ally to the poor should be afraid right now. However, there is a big difference between fear and hopelessness. Social assistance as we know it was created because people fought for it. People saw their individual and collective misery, were afraid of not keeping their housing, not having food and fought for something better. We know that there is hope. We know that if all of us come together along with everyone else on social assistance and our allies that we can not only keep what we have but we can work to get what we actually need – enough for everyone on social assistance to not only survive (which we still have to win) but also to thrive.
There are times when poor people have no choice but to fight back. This is one of those times. It won’t be easy. It will take all of us doing a lot of work – talking to everyone we know about it, coming out to meetings and most importantly to demonstrations. We must fight back. We must fight to win and we will win.
In-text citations on this page:
The Bullet: “Austerity Agenda Targets the Disabled”