2-2 May Day

May 1, 2012

I wrote this in 1996, pre-internet. Happy May Day, everyone!

How Small Can I Get?

By David Hoffman
Ottawa, Canada

February 19, 1996.

  Today I am told is the first day in the Chinese Zodiac of the Year of the Rat. Being born in 1960, I'll share the boast of honesty and ambition and admit to an irreverent hope for new prosperity.
  My prosperity was a house plant. It died about five years ago when water became premium. Five years ago I became unnecessary and entered the New Nightmare Economy of welfare, poverty, McJobs, sweatshop work, brief Christmas stints and finally spartan self-employment entwined with quasi-Trainfare. Though a stream trickles, delicate and uncertain at my feet, this has been an ongoing bad dream. The plant is still here, desiccated in a plastic pot. You know the kind.
  The past six months have been a nightmare. It began when Mister Common Sense Marketing Ploy won the Ontario election last summer. The Manitou came to wail when welfare was cut by 21 percent. I snap like a ragged flag in a typhoon. This can no longer be kept in.

  Mister Infomercial was the sound bite of choice for just enough voters to get him--it?--elected. Herr Infomercial ran a cleaver through the humanity of this province. He lied about welfare and sacrificed unemployed people to drum up voters, stirring in each who can be counted this way a lingering bigotry that only prosperous times put to bed previously.
  The stock market crash of 1929 plunged Canada into the Great Depression. You won't know anything about this unless you're older than sixty. Many a rich guy took it in the pants but the little guy took it in the face. It sent one third of us into unemployment and abject poverty. Never mind that severe drought turned the Prairie provinces into a shrieking dustbowl, with sandstorms and locust plagues providing a surrealistic horror. A massive number of us lost our jobs and could find no work. We turned to what welfare was called then; Relief. Unemployment insurance had not been invented yet and believe me, the 1930s is why U.I. was invented!
  Data-gathering was rather poor back then and it took a while for governments to notice and then admit there was a serious problem. The first miner's canary of warning I have read appears in House of Commons 'hansard' dated 1930. An m.p. said that unemployment in some northern town was so bad, the jail was overloaded. You see, when you lost your job, you had no income. Lodgings would be lost and, now homeless, you had nowhere to go. Loitering was illegal and you would be arrested and sent to jail for 30 days. A judge complained about the futility of further sentences as, jail crowding aside, a prisoner released would still have nowhere to go and would end up being re-arrested.

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  Imagine having so little--not in terms of possessions but beyond to food and shelter--that 30 days in jail would be an improvement? Can the power of a punitive measure like imprisonment be collapsed more gently than by a prisoner relieved to be housed and fed?
  These men were jailed in that community because they were surplus to the local economy and, through that economy, they were surplus to other people. That's what joblessness amounted to and the same is true today.

  In so many words, the Weasel Sense Revolution said that welfare recipients are unmotivated to find work and have it too cushy. With the corporate precision of developing a new laundry soap, campaign organizers conducted focus groups that found a large enough swath of anti-welfare bigotry and loathing in this province to constitute a swollen voting block. The McHorde consciously chose to exploit a dark stain running through many of us.
  The Depression showed people the hard way that to demean and punish those who do not work was to worship the meanest labour at the meanest wages. Many were sucked in by the nostalgic rhetoric about pioneer self-reliance and even though it wasn't their fault no work was available, the unemployed felt plenty of shame for not being able to live up to the creed. This has been forgotten sufficiently for too many people to vote the same way in last summer's never-ending heatwave. Full advantage of our collective denseness was taken and it was taken on behalf of the stern imperatives of the labour market. As a result, one in ten human beings in Ontario are in deep crisis right now.
  Never mind the money. Push to one side dreadful averages and for a moment suspend myths gilded by your own internal crone. Here's what welfare is really like.

  Before the 21 percent cut, before 15,000 people vanished from the rolls, welfare was never cushy. Unless you were an unemployed single parent it was nowhere near as lucrative as a full-time minimum wage job. Quite the contrary, for many of the unfortunate, welfare is a gruelling, degrading naked keel-haul at the hands of middle class, university-educated, low level civil servants given far more discretion than ability.
  Unemployment is high right now not because welfare is in any way a desirable option. It's because there isn't enough work. Besides the government cutbacks and the impending Overclass tax grab, the wonders of automation and the affections of our businessmen for cheap foreign labour are sucking employment from your community. When we were promised in the 1950s and 1960s that the future would have more leisure time and fewer working hours, everybody forgot to mention this would only apply to the owners of the means of production. I certainly don't own my own factory robot and I don't even have a product inventory to computerize. As for the rest of you, well, every man for himself. How very twisted "Do your own thing" has become, like the Crucifixion stuffed with rice and peppers.


  You know the other reasons. This where the labour market imperatives get their sternness. Our social programs are being dismantled so we can compete with other countries that don't have them. Feel free to buy shoes, cars and wrenches made by people working and living under conditions you would never accept, let alone to send your children. No, the only price you see is what's on the little tag, brightly lit in fluorescent shopping malls.

  A single man in Ottawa who had no job (nor U.I.) could receive up to $660 a month on welfare when the N.D.P. lost the provincial election. That means he will receive about $250 a month for food and living expenses and he can receive up to $410 a month for shelter costs. That is, rent and utilities. A full-time minimum wage job would generate about $1,100 a month but also cost some in income taxes. That's with two weeks off a year, by the way. Six hundred and sixty dollars a month isn't much is it?
  Even under Bob Rae, the rate never took into account market rates for rental accommodation. This means recipients usually used a portion of their food and living budget on shelter and utilities. This was a step down from employed life and they will try very hard to adapt emotionally to spartan terms. Regardless of success in doing this, all see an abyss before them, perhaps a latent fear of the outdoors.
  Today, that jobless man can only receive up to $510 a month in welfare. The rate cut seems to have been designed to create a crisis. It was based on an assumption that the crisis is needed to shake recipients out of complacency. As such, it was inflicted on people without consent. I'll let you in on a secret. Any complacency among these people exists because poverty cust them off from their employed friends and from the ordinary ways to find new work. They jump at every decent chance they get to work or to get further education, when they aren't stupefied by trauma or hopelessness. But these chances come fewer and farther between. Work itself now runs at a trickle.
  The Sound Bite Revolution also announced that recipients could earn back what they lost when the rates were cut. How hard can it be to find $120 a month worth of work, they asked? Obviously, they didn't know. Seventeen hours a month of work at minimum, perhaps a part-time job. Sorry, pal, there aren't even enough of them to go around, but go around the welfare bums must, because those are the rules.

Here we go round, the welfare bums, the welfare bums, the welfare bums!
Here we go round, the welfare bums, because those are the rules!

  Martin Schroder is a recovering alcoholic. The 55-year-old man should have been classified as permanently unemployable, but he isn't.
  Armed with a Grade Eight education and tending a psychic garden adorned with probation meetings, sown from assault charges, he was sternly required by his welfare caseworker in the Regional Municipality of Ottawa-Carleton's Social Services department to do 'jobsearch' as required of all able-bodied


  Schroder dutifully made the rounds, filled out his jobsearch sheet and sent it in. Likewise, his caseworker dutifully called each and every contact listed on the sheet. Naturally, only fifteen of these prospective employers remembered this gentleman coming in to apply for work. Dutiful as Dicken's Gradgrind, as assured as Bounderby, the caseworker cut Schroder off.
  Schroder's life became horrible. He lost his apartment and he turned at first to friends for food and a place to sleep. Then he ended up at that ash heap of a monument to the Winner Culture, the Men's Mission. No longer eligible for welfare's medical coverage, he lost his prescriptions, pharmaceutical products that good or bad told him dose by dose that he is included in and remembered by what is modern and ours. Maybe his parents could have told him years ago about being herded, excluded and forgotten. I believe this marketing term is 'goodwill', but only when you actually have it. He missed his A.A. meetings and became so destitute that he missed a probation appointment because he didn't have change for a bus ride to see his parole officer.
  This man turned to a local front-line advocacy centre for help. This volunteer group contested the caseworker's decision and after two stinking months Schroder was back on welfare, under 'emergency assistance'. He won the appeal in the process that took half a year. The advocates pointed out that employers who see somebody come through the door to fill out a job application, should they decide not to hire, often throw the application in the trash when the applicant leaves. A month later when diligent caseworkers call to ask if that inverted labour market version of window shopping was remembered by the business manager, chances are it won't be.
  The advocates also won for him the two months of welfare he did not receive. Faced with this meagre windfall after what he had been through, Schroder sat in his newly-inhabited, shared-accommodation apartment and thought of family he had not seen for years. He could buy a bus ticket. Perhaps being financially assaulted by an office worker and literally left for dead fuelled the notion that belonging to others means more to him than it did before. Call it anything else but whether you like it or not, this thinking is called building self-esteem.
  Ever diligent, his caseworker then authored the discovery that Schroder had in fact been receiving more than he was entitled to all along. Can you guess what that amounted to? Lucky then for him he had been cut off for two months!
  In a bureautravesty rich lawyers would cleanly label abuse, Schroder was plunged into abject poverty by an admini-minion through the black magic of 'verifiable jobsearch'. But for the advocates' intervention, he would have ended up on the streets. Since desperate times inevitably require desperate measures, he quite easily could have ended up in jail.


  What we call welfare today is 'delivered' by provincial and municipal social services departments. In Ontario, the Ministry of Community and Social Services delivers Family Benefits, a form of welfare for parents with children. The province also provides some of the money spent by municipal governments on welfare. In Ottawa, the regional government is responsible for this, and it delivers General Welfare for individuals and families.
  Locally, folk apply for welfare with the regional government. If they are single parent families and they remain jobless long enough, they can be moved to the provincial Family Benefits rolls.
  Recipients not minding the children are expected to look for employment. Not finding work is the primary reason why so many apply for assistance in the first place. To verify that recipients are looking for work, they are required to document this effort on a 'jobsearch' sheet. If you don't pick up your welfare cheque in person and have it mailed to you, the jobsearch sheets must be mailed back.
  Welfare cheques normally are tear-apart forms accompanied by a tiny return envelope normally meant to be occupied by one of the tear-off form sections. The jobsearch sheet, on the other hand, is the size of a court document. A familiarity with origami paper folding comes in mighty handy.

  One who applies for welfare is supposed to be handed a sheet declaring a recipient's rights and responsibilities, though this doesn't always happen. You may be read your rights and responsibilities and have to sign the form but the brilliantly practical and convenient idea of actually giving you a copy of what you have just signed doesn't always occur.
  Another brilliantly practical idea that didn't occur is to tell you as a matter of course that if you aren't successful looking for work, there are training programs available, such as they were, to help you find a job or even make one of your own. That was before the McHorde dissolved JobsOntario.
  A couple of years ago, Ottawa's Social Planning Council studied all local employment and training programs offered by all tiers of government. Not only did every single program have waiting lists ranging from six months to two years but demand for access exceeded supply by five to ten times. This study shatters the myth that welfare recipients are unmotivated to seek work and it shows they are shut out of the toolshed. 

  I met Clarence Bell for a coffee in Vanier two winters ago on aright sunny day. He had written been about by a local columnist. News reports about welfare recipients are as rare as they are painful.
  Bell had been cut off welfare for thinking. One day he had a great idea to launch a magazine of some sort for welfare recipients and other social assistance stakeholders. It would be financed by advertisements and so would be distributed free. He got so excited, he told his caseworker. She decided he was self-employed and cut him off. Bell landed on a friend's couch.
  Self-employment is what expensive consultants tell professional and


middle class people to pursue in our job-exporting, staff-shedding, automation-fixated era. This, however, is strictly forbidden for many on welfare. Try it and you're no longer eligible, regardless of whether or not you actually earn any money. To Bell it became a meaningless word.
  Bell had actually been employed by the regional social services department and worked at a local welfare office. One day, he watched staff mark the lunch hour by simply closing the wickets as if the long line of recipients crowding the waiting room didn't exist. Well within easy earshot of that roomful of people, all of whom live well below the poverty line, staff chatted idly about their RRSP options.
  After another phone call, I fell out of touch with Bell. A year later I saw a man who looked like him sitting on the sidewalk in front of the Rideau Centre. Looking scarily rustic, he panhandled for coins. I was too shy to find out if it really was him and if it was, I doubted he needed to be reminded by my attention how far down he was. I haven't seen any welfare magazines around, have you?
  Self-employment is not forbidden to single parents with children which means about half of the people now on welfare are not allowed to do anything but apply for jobs, over and over again. All seeds of hope are to be crushed before they germinate into ideas.

  Raj Gupta begged and borrowed what he needed for a down payment on Ottawa taxi plates. He sought ground-level entry into this service sector and hoped to bootstrap the plate fees, the sitting fees, the maintenance and the gas bills using his own cash-flow. Newly-plated cab drivers don't start out doing the airport run, they ferry folk far away from the core in places like Barrhaven or Nepean. The bottom of the barrel is what it is. But because he would be self-employed, his caseworker cut him and his family off welfare.
  Fortunately, Gupta was still eligible for social assistance because as a taxi driver he was a 'dependent contractor', which is allowed. For a while he turned to friends and relatives and then he turned to the food bank. His case was appealed and on these grounds. However, he would not be allowed to deduct any expenses from his declared income. Had this not been required, Gupta would be off welfare by now, working long enough to get out. Instead, he gave up because he wanted to feed his children.
  Having been cut off, he had to provide a lawyer's affidavit verifying the sale of his plates and income from that sale would, of course, be educated from his assistance. 

  Not being allowed to deduct a business expense from earned income means the craftworker, the technician and the masseur can't create their own jobs and bootstrap themselves off assistance. You would think that welfare administrators, any of whom could take padded job buy-outs to try the same thing, would welcome such initiative shown by the jobless. But I guess this highfalutin' 'go out and make your own job' rhetoric only applies to the 


upper and middle classes. If the hypocrisy causes you to feel a murderous rage, your emotions are healthy.

  There is another kind of recipient permitted self-employment; graduates of an entrepreneurial training program set up by the Community Enterprise Centre. These people can set up and run their own businesses and if their endeavours make it through the hoop set for them they can continue. If not, it's back to jobsearch. What many of those graduates think about the rules welfare caseworkers administer would give Grandma a heart attack, unless she was an old Bolshevik.

  Advocates have had some calls from local employers but not to acquire employees. Located near a welfare office, these businesses want to know how to stop people from coming through their doors to apply for work because they don;'t have any jobs on offer. They don't realize that the stream of welfare recipients exists because if they don't apply--and verify that they apply--they won't have money to eat the next month. Part of the process can include the recipient actually asking a prospective employer to sign his jobsearch form, something no other kind of job-seeker must do. Ordinarily, you are taught to deposit your resume and call back in a week, not do what amounts to saying "Hi, I'm a loser. Would you sign my Loser Form, please?"
  If a five minute hello and sign-your-name isn't a problem, employers readily become frustrated by five minutes times ten applicants. They close their minds and become unwilling to even consider these people anymore if a position becomes available. The single biggest impact of welfare jobsearch requirements is that diligently fulfilling them can actually diminish an unemployed person's chance at landing a job. Round and round we go in the capital of the country with the western world's worst job training record. Some times Canadians seem too damned obedient.
  There is some distance between what provincial social program administrators require to fund the kind of program the CEC offered (until it was Sound Bit) and what the jobless need. The rest will struggle as casualties in the crashed local economy.
  Jobsearch and BusyTraining are the order of the day. In 1932 it was workfare: stupid BusyWork like hand-weeding dandelions from city hall lawns, digging exhibition grounds holes and then filling them, or even manual road work (next to idle heavy equipment) far away from the potholes in front of taxpayer's houses, when the homeowner couldn't pay. In these ways, politicians and civil servants could show taxpayers they were getting something for their money, a performance of men working, with showtime from eight to six.
  In the early 1930s, a woman who would later become a stern Ottawa mayor headed a professional association of social workers. In an attempt to secure federal funding for her niche, Charlotte Whitton proposed a final solution to the problem of surplus single men. In order to protect the


public from these potentially dangerous (and politicizable) and mostly young men, she suggested they be herded into concentration camps far away from the cities. To coerce them into going, they were rendered ineligible for municipal Relief. The federal government liked this scheme and to ice the cake had it administered by the Department of Defense who ran the camps with frustrated wannabe officers.
  As Winnipeg writer James Grey so aptly put it, the lives of the employed were just as unnatural as the lives of the jobless. What would have been natural is reasonable job security and regular if modest raises to feed kids and kin. What took place was repeated wage cuts and profound job insecurity. You knew a hundred men were always lined up who would each in desperation gladly do your job for less pay.
  In a single breath, the employed could castigate the jobless as lazy and spoiled but stay away from my job, this lifeboat is full. Sound familiar? Gray says the unemployed were like human termites, chewing away at the local wage structure until it collapsed. He could have added something about how employed people were collaborators in this process or said when they were co-opted by it. After a while, that didn't matter anymore.

  There are under 2,000 welfare and family benefits caseworkers in our region. Are they made or born? It used to be a Grade Eight education was enough but now you'd need two years at a university and a degree in social work or many more years for a Master's. Not that new positions are opening right now. There exist some demographic differences. Younger and older caseworkers bring the most grief to recipients if advocacy interventions are any indication. In the middle, workers are accepting job buy-outs, leaving behind stricter, more ignorant or more abusive colleagues. 

  Clarence Kelly was born overseas but had lived most of his life in Canada. After he went on welfare, it was discovered the province of Quebec had made a clerical error on birth certificate documents. Kelley was cut off welfare because the dates didn't match. His case was appealed with hearty cries of "racism" and he was back on in a week.
  Stuart Martin was already on welfare last fall when the rates were cut 21 percent and he could no longer afford his apartment. To his considerable relief, he found a cheaper one on a Thursday with the chance to move in on Saturday. On Friday his caseworker wasn't at work. Martin left a message to obtain a 'sat month's rent letter'. His caseworker calls on Monday and refuses, saying "you're supposed to ask me beforehand". Since this involves 'discretionary aid' the decision can't be appealed. Martin is paying out a third of his food budget to build up the rent deposit because that caseworker took the day off.
  Dale Miller's father owns a boat dealership in Hawkesbury and as a favour in tight times Dale occasionally helps his dad re-route inventory from other dealers. Due to the requirements of dealer transfers, Dale has been given a limited power of attorney allowing funds to be transferred through


his bank account for each inventory purchase. His caseworker decided Dale owned the business and that those transfers amounted to money he had access to and cut him off.
  Lawyers letters and bank records, testimony the income was never available to him was to no avail. Perhaps the message in this, that he isn't permitted to do his father any favours and is now completely useless, is what drove him to a nervous breakdown.
  An inheritance can provide some consolation in the death of a relative, but not for Julian Bower. When he received $10,000, he told his caseworker who said "fine, now you're off the system". But Bower also had $8,000 in debts, which he paid. Still unemployed, he recontacted Welfare and was told he is only eligible if he has under $1,000 in assets. So he spent the next month living off the other half. When he applied for assistance again, he was asked what happened to his $10,000? "Paying off your debts doesn't count". If he doesn't find any work, he will have to live on $110 a month for nine months until he is eligible again.
  After Jim Laasco moved into a rooming house with a live-in, foreign language landlady, he gave his caseworker a receipt. "Is this foor room and board?" he is asked. "No, its just rent" he replies. "I don't believe you" his crassworker says and calls the landlady. "Ya, ya, he stay here", the landlady says. "Ya, ya, I feed him sometimes". The caseworker decides he doesn't need a food budget after all. Then Laasco tells his landlady he can't pay her $300 a month anymore because he must eat. She's starting to get annoyed. After all, she can rent the room to anybody without this kind of hassle. After the caseworker phones again, at ten o'clock on a Sunday morning, the landlady gives Laasco thirty days' notice and kicks him out.

The latest niggardly assault on the unemployed of this province misfortunate enough to depend on welfare or family benefits comes once again from the Common Sense Weasels under the label of 'co-habitation'.
  If you live in shared accommodation, a la university student room-mates, you can be cut off if your 'co-resident' is a member of the opposite sex. The best part is that you get to implicate yourself. Better still, your neighbours, doctors, corner store clerks and dentists can do it on your behalf, and then you will be required to have affidavits from friends and family that you and your room-mate aren't a couple.
  Two gay men shacking up together and madly in love are no problem! But for Sylvie Turner, no dice. She and her children fled horrendous abuse at the hands of her ex-partner, a man renowned among the more explosive Montreal biker gangs. Still fearing for her safety, she had a man move into her house, though all she could offer him was the living room couch.
  Turner's caseworker presumed this amounted to a family relationship faster than you can say "ketchup is a vegetable" and cut her off. This decision was appealed and overturned. It wasn't enough that Turner was a violence refugee, that, hell being only two hours away, she needed to compromise her domestic privacy by adding a room-mate she didn't really 


have room for or that some knuckle-dragging mouth-breather of a bureaucrat could jerk her around. Oh, no. Said caseworker wasn't satisfied with the rent the man paid. So now, although he pays $200 a month to sleep on a couch, Turner has $350 a month deducted from her assistance. You can see pissant shoulders shrugging. "Well, she can charge $350 a month". As if this is diligence.
  If Turner had been lucky, she could have taken the Great Man in the House Test. In it, she would be asked a multitude of loaded questions that any or all of which can be used as evidence that a familial relationship exists. Questions like;

Do your neighbours and friends consider the two of you a couple?
Did he attend your last birthday party?
Have the two of you ever gone to a restaurant together?
Did he pay?
Do you shop for groceries together?
Who does the cleaning and the laundry?
Has he ever given a Christmas gift to your children?

  The test has about forty questions. The only reason you would be required to answer them is that your room-mate is not of your gender. It is as if any of the small things room-mates ordinarily do because, besides sharing a flat just like Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, they're friends constitutes a marriage. Indeed, since the federal government assumes that, after a man and a woman have lived together for more than 33 months are in fact married common-law, Ontario's social services administrators have in their supreme benevolence decided that if you have been living this long with your gender opposite for that long, they can automatically ask you their loaded questions. Kafka would have a field day down here!

  There was a protocol established for the steps caseworkers must take. First of all, you phone the recipient and let her know she's no longer eligible for assistance because you suspect she's living in a family relationship. You bring her in, degrade her for a while with the Test and then decide whether or not to make her homeless. On the other hand, I can think of five people right off the top of my head who were phoned by their caseworkers, were told they were cut off, and two weeks later got a letter thanking them for voluntarily withdrawing from the Family Benefits system.


  Shelley Scott has a pair of children under the age of two. During her year on social assistance she looked at herself, at the family she came from and decide the cycle of poverty had to end. She went back to school and secured $5,000 of Ontario Student Assistance Plan funding. When her caseworker learned that she had received it, she was not only cut off, she was told she had to pay back the last three months of her assistance.
  The position Scott found herself in was rather unpleasant. Stress, fatigue, insomnia and colds are incapacitating afflictions that wipe out everybody under extreme duress but, sympathetic decongestant advertisers aside, they have no more market value. Neither does helping your young son vomit accurately into the toilet at three fucking o'clock in the morning and then scraping the rest of it from the carpet by his bed. Unlike fresh oranges, that has no market value either.
  Different people try to manage their stress in different ways. One way to feel better in an intolerable situation you have no control over is to eat. Shelley would go to the food bank, a place no Common Sense Weasel has ever been, score a package of spaghetti noodles, cook the whole thing, and eat till her belly hurt. Binge eating and fasting has no market value either but consuming large amounts of pasta will give you a temporary, sleepy sense of serenity.
  Scott's caseworker obviously didn't know about provincial directives PD 904 and 905, which says that as long as a recipient claims accurately on an OSAP application they receive welfare, nothing would be deducted from their welfare allowance. That being said, let alone faxed, the caseworker still wouldn't budge until every niggardly original document arrived by mail and was accompanied by a signed, sworn affidavit from Scott saying that all of the information contained therein was true. In the end, the caseworker's supervisor finally overruled.
  Scott managed to find something to laugh about. Her caseworker was in her 20s. "What's the matter? Did she have to work her way through university and has a grudge against people who don't? Is this the level of frustration?"

  Scott had it easy compared to Ilsa Chamas. She came to Canada as an immigrant, not a refugee, but her husband was abusive and the children--as if simply seeing and hearing your own father abuse your own mother isn't bad enough--were at risk. She and the two kids secured City Living accommodation and a separation agreement with her husband was arranged.
  Lots of people are excited when the SuperEx comes to town. The bright lights and perpetual noise and music draw thousands of people, an enormous portion of Ottawa's human gene pool to watch. Each face and figure presents at least a paragraph in a book that takes weeks to read.
  Ilsa's kids are like any other and they wanted to go. But after she paid the rent and the bills, she only had $300 a month for feeding her family. She allows her former husband to take the kids to the Ex. The next morning, they are in Lebanon.


  Among the Hague Treaty signatories, countries that enforce international custody orders, you will not find Lebanon. Ilsa would have togo there to fight for her children. She begged, borrowed and stole what she needed to make the journey. With the help of Interpol, the RCMP and a photography shop, welfare advocates secured for her a passport. The advocates absorbed these costs because the social assistance bureaucrats would pay for none of it.
  Ilsa returned to Lebanon to get her children back and lost the case. When she returned to Ottawa she found she had been cut off assistance and was also expected to pay back what she had received during the month of her absence. Nor could she resume Opportunity Planning sessions that recipients can attend. No longer having children with her, she lost her geared-to-income house. But the icing on this cake is that Revenue Canada ordered her to repay her Child Tax Credit since the children were kidnapped.
  Quite naturally, Ilsa became depressed and her asthma flared up. No longer having a 'drug card', she didn't even have the $120 necessary to procure a ventilator. Breathing, it seems, has no market value either.
  Life got a bit better when Ilsa was re-instated and she also found a part-time job. Not for long, though, because although her assistance was re-instated, she was not believed. When Ilsa submitted two pay stubs, her caseworker decided there should have been three. In the end her employer was dragged in to prove Ilsa wasn't lying, sort of like having another kind of Loser Form filled out. A number of welfare recipients have lost their part-time jobs this way, people who have gone to their bosses a third time because the first letter wasn't accurate enough for RMOC, and neither was the second. By the third one, the boss gets angry and says "don't come back".

  Ilsa went through three caseworkers. The one who originally cut her off left RMOC a month later due to burn-out. This marks a demographic trend within welfare caseworker ranks. Staff in their thirties and forties are accepting job buy-outs and the ones who remain have caseloads so large they can't provide any one-on-one help. Case loads within Family Benefits are even higher. When the Canada Assistance Plan was first introduced to fund and set standards for welfare programs, it was suggested caseworkers handle no more than 45 cases per year. Today, some RMOC workers who feel they can handle 70 per month are trying to cope with 120. In FBA, caseloads are 450 and up, which is impossible to manage. Well-paid, university-educated bureaucrats with absolutely no understanding of the day-to-day realities of life as a welfare recipient set this system up.

  Juliette Allain is a black Canadian who has lived in many countries. In Spain, her husband was abusive so she gave him the Royal Boot. But being black in Spain is to endure the ubiquitous racism many Spaniards harbour against blacks, so she decided to drain her bank account and move back to Canada with her son. Her plan is to move in with her sister and then find


  Work proved hard to find, so she applied for welfare. She was refused and told to go back to Spain and obtain a bank statement to prove she doesn't have any money. It seems the caseworker didn't know that 11,000 pesos is not $18,000 (and in case you didn't either, that's roughly $16.20).
  Allain is beautiful and intelligent but her french is better than her english. Naturally she gets an anglophone caseworker. The welfare advocate asks for a francophone but is denied. An apprentice advocate who is bilingual comes along to the resulting meeting. Two and a half hours into the meeting, the caseworker insists on having Allain read her rights and responsibilities in english and in french. Why? Because she knew the advocates had another engagement and decided to be a pain in the ass. Then she decided that, since Allain has the potential of being transferred from regional welfare to provincial FBA, she would read out the slightly different FBA rights and responsibilities as well.
  Later, Allain's caseworker decides that her sister's cheque should be reduced because Allain gives her sister rent money. When co-residents share rent, one will give the other their portion of this money in order to give a single rent cheque to the landlord. But according to welfare, whoever does the receiving is not in fact simply transferring funds. No, they are receiving roomer income, which is income deductible at 60 percent. The only way to avoid it is to give separate cheques to the landlord and have each tenant named in the lease, whether the landlord likes it or not. Chances are he belongs to an upper economic strata in a cultural terrain loaded with misanthropy and stoically eager to push away shipwreck survivors from the lifeboat.
  Now the advocate has to negotiate with the other sister. If she could add Allain to her mortgage as a co-resident, both would be able to split the mortgage payment equally. In the end, Allain couldn't take it anymore. She had anticipated coming to Canada, living with her sister for three or four months, getting her kids into school, enhancing her english skills and finding employment. She didn't expect to have trouble feeding her kid thanks to a bureau-minion more eager to harm than help.

  You will have a hard time finding a caseworker that will admit to this but at the regional level, they have been given quotas of thirty recipients per month to be ejected from the rolls. It could mean that some will be transferred onto provincially-funded FBA or it could mean that some will be cut off for fraud.

  The number of families on welfare fell by 5,000 in December. "Welfare scams bilk us for $2.2 million" screams an Ottawa Sun headline in February. RMOC randomly audits 3,000 cases a month, about 10 percent of the welfare rolls. About six percent of those were found to be fraudulent. That's three times what is considered the regular welfare fraud rate. But what exactly is being called fraud? One example the Sun article gives is a 


Vanier man who bilked the system of $57,000 by using six names over seven years. Fifty-seven thou sounds impressive but $679 a month doesn't.
  Well, I know what they're calling welfare fraud. Five years of child support, awarded by courts but never enforced and then 'retroactively assigned' by another shrugging caseworker is welfare fraud. Not declaring the extra $40 you earned cleaning homes to buy your kid a pair of Doc Martens instead of having that amount deducted from your next cheque is welfare fraud. Living in shared accommodation with a room-mate of the opposite sex and doing your grocery shopping in bulk together to save money so that you can actually afford fresh produce is welfare fraud. Starting your own business to get off welfare and not declaring some of the income so you can spend it on overhead or new workbooks is welfare fraud.
  A member of the welfare fraud squad is called an eligibility review officer. They go to neighbours, they look in windows, in garages to make sure there's no car. They'll peruse your bank account, consult with Revenue Canada, your dentist, your school, everywhere.

  What's in store? The federal government's Canada Assistance Plan regulating provincial welfare standards is to be dissolved this spring. The Common Sense Weasels can simply scrap Ontario's Social Assistance Review Board, through which all of the cases I've mentioned were appealed. Without SARB, these people would be rats on a river.
  What's in store? Perhaps Charles Dickens knew when he published Hard Times in 1854. "Utilitarian economists, skeletons of old schoolmasters, Commissioners of Fact, genteel and used-up infidels, gabblers of many little dog's-eared creeds, the poor you will always have with you. Cultivate in them, while there is yet time, the utmost graces of the fancies and affections to adorn their lives so much in need of adornment; or, on the day of your triumph, when romance is utterly driven out of their souls, and they and a bare existence stand face to face, Reality will take a wolfish turn, and make an end of you!"
  What matters is how we treat one another.


  This is history.

  There lives an African tribe in the northeast mountains of Uganda bordering Keny and Sudan called the Ik. They were studied in depth by an anthropologist who lived among them for a while. What happened to them holds a vital lesson for us all.
  Originally a tribe of nomadic hunter-gatherers, the Ik had always been free to range for food over large areas. Women and children drove prey towards the men who used nets and weapons to catch and kill them. The women also all shared with each other the task of gathering vegetable foods.
  They were a very cooperative tribe and like most people living this kind of of life, they were generous, affectionate, honest and compassionate. But then the African colonies became independent and the Ik range became divided between three countries.
  Frontiers became more important. Large areas were set aside as nature reserves. The Ik were not permitted to continue their nomadic life and ended up confined to a barren mountain area where food and even water was very hard to obtain. Their lifestyle changed completely but they didn't have the skills that might have helped with that change. Their condition became increasingly impossible and they began to starve. As a result, the social structure changed and became more and more negative.
  The Ik became thoroughly obsessed with food as will anybody faced with starvation but for them this obsession took on a tragic dimension. When a hunt was successful or when some other source of food happened to be discovered, there was no impulse to share it. Any good fortune of this kind was hidden from others because if it became public knowledge, there was an obligation to share. Those who made the kill or the discovery would just gorge themselves and then take the rest to sell at a local police outpost.
  Sharing good fortune with family was regarded as the greatest foolishness. This refusal to share food meant they lost the capacity to cooperate in other ways. As they became more and more selfish and individualistic, concern for others and the desire to care for them completely broke down.
  They cared less and less for their children. Parents showed little interest in their offspring after the mother had finished breast-feeding. By the time the children were three, they'd be pushed out of the house to fend for themselves. If it rained, they might be allowed to sit in the doorway of their parents' house, but that was all. Otherwise, the children had to make shelters for themselves.
  These children did cooperate among themselves since they would be unlikely to survive alone. They formed groups of different ages for self-preservation against other groups of children, rather like rival gangs in big cities. There was a lot of violence, and friendships were brief because they would turn on each other.
  Old people were even more harshly treated than the children. They were the ones least able to get any food, so they would often be starving. And


while they were actually dying, other Ik would snatch their possessions and clothes and even take food from their mouths.
  Virtually every Ik had lost all capacity for fellowship. Their life was so dreadful, there was so much to grieve about and so little to enjoy, they learned to repress practically all their capacity to feel. People cannot repress one emotion without repressing them all. The anthropologist found it was hard to detect any emotion at all among the Ik and he called them "the loveless people". They behaved as if it was important not to love anyone as a protection from feeling pain and sorrow that would otherwise be suffered. He said "I have seen little of what I would call affection. I have seen things that would make me want to cry…but I had never seen an Ik anywhere near tears or sorrow. Only the children's tears of anger, malice and hate."
  "I have seen no sign of family life such as is found almost everywhere else in the world. I have seen no sign of love, with its willingness to accept that we are not completely by ourselves, but need to be joined by others."
  The Ik treated the anthropologist like they treated each other and living among them was extremely painful. They would talk to each other in a different language just to exclude him. He once sat for three days by a water hole with a group of Ik but there was silence throughout. Most of the time they enjoyed frustrating him by preventing him from getting from them the knowledge he had come to seek. Yet, in all that they did, the Ik were showing him what it felt like to be one of them: completely isolated, each on his or her own.
  He actually came to feel like one of them. He was disturbed to find that he started to behave like one of them to protect himself. Increasingly, he found himself in a chronic bad humour. He withdrew into isolation and silence and, incredibly, actually felt pleasure at shutting out others and eating in isolation. But while living among them, it would have been impossible for him not to become assimilated.
  The pleasure was in making others feel worse than yourself. The Ik got most of what little enjoyment they had from watching other people have unpleasant experiences. Someone who fell over and was too weak to get up again would be taunted and humiliated. Old people who could only crawl would be pushed over as a form of amusement. Once, the tribe tried to lead the anthropologist to his own death, just for amusement.
  Worst of all, they would watch a child crawling towards an open fire without stopping or warning it, wait keen ly for the moment when it would touch the flames, and then burst into laughter when it burnt itself.
  The more stressed people get, the less able they are to worry about how others are feeling. The Ik took this to an extreme of outright cruelty. It takes some strength of character without wishing they too would suffer. There is a natural tendency to lesson one's own pain by spreading it around and the worse you feel yourself, the nastier you want to be to others. This


"works" best if you can make others feel much more pain than you do so you can feel lucky by comparison. This is easier to achieve with babies, old people, and any other people who are weak and vulnerable.
  The moral code of the Ik became 'every man for himself', and extreme form of a code that is increasingly common for our own society. Theirs is no different except in degree from 'free enterprise' carried to its limits, or where those in work are quite content to see a lot of other people remaining unemployed rather than sharing their own jobs and accepting less money, or by paying substantial taxes.
  The anthropologist concluded the behaviour of the Ik made sense in evolutionary terms, given their situation. The most vital thing for the continuation of the tribe was for the healthy adults to survive. They were the ones best alb to cope and they could always have more children later.
  What happened to the Ik was not natural--their confinement was artificially imposed by other humans. While nature is not accountable, people who control the lives of others are.

  This story came to me from the book 'Life and how to survive it' written by Robin Skynner and John Cleese. It was published in 1993, has 422 pages and is available from Reed Books Canada in Markham, Ont. Buy it if you can or borrow it if you must.

  If you are someone on social assistance, I want to tell you something in conclusion just in case nobody else has said it. Whether or not I will ever have the resources to help you or even the time to listen to you, whether or not I ever hear your name, I know three things about you. You matter, you are a decent human being and you are as good as anybody else.
  If you are not someone on social assistance but you know somebody who is, I dare you to say to them what I just did.

David Hoffman
Ottawa    1996