Here’s an interesting story that I don’t believe I’ve told before. It’s from the days before blogging. At this time twenty years ago, I was collecting welfare.
I’d spent the 1992-1993 academic year in Grand Rapids, Michigan, attending a teacher training program at Calvin College. I’d applied to all the Ontario teachers’ colleges but hadn’t been accepted, despite strong grades. At the time, teaching was one of the hottest careers going and everything about the profession was very competitive. I enjoyed a very good year in Michigan and learned a lot, personally and professionally, but when I returned to Ontario in the summer of 1993, I had absolutely no contacts here. I was living with my dad, on a bed behind the sofa, and having gone into debt to attend teachers’ college, had no money at all to support myself while searching for a teaching job. My dad had recently exhausted his severance after taking early retirement from IBM at the age of 49, so he was suffering financially as well. Wanting to devote myself fulltime to finding a teaching position, and thinking it would only be for a month or two, I applied for welfare. My monthly cheque was for the princely sum of $663, $400 of which went to my dad for room and board. In those pre-Internet days, I had to send out resumés by mail and search for information at the library. The library was really the only place I could get out of the apartment without spending any money.
Although I had a few interviews, they were only for private school positions or to be added to the public school supply lists. As I mentioned, things were very competitive, and I had no local teaching experience. I taught a day or two as a substitute at a local Christian school, and volunteered at the junior high school next to my dad’s place, but nothing better came along. After spending so much time and money preparing for this career, I didn’t want to give up too easily, but really, $663 a month meant I’d never get out of my dad’s apartment.
In the spring of 1994, during a meeting with my caseworker, she looked at my qualifications and mentioned that the municipality were actually hiring caseworkers and that I should apply. Coincidentally, one of the other Torontonians who I’d met at Calvin had been hired as a caseworker several months before. With her encouragement and guidance, I aced the preliminary exam and in May, 1994, I was hired. I’d gone from one side of the desk to the other.
It was a demanding job, but one which, for a while, made me feel like I was helping people. Then in 1995, Ontarians elected Mike Harris, a Conservative whose “Common Sense Revolution” promised to lower taxes and punish those on social assistance. Welfare rates were slashed (single people saw their assistance cut from $663/month to $520/month, and those rates remained in place for many many years) and “workfare” programs were drawn up. My job became much much harder. For instance, people on social assistance were required to report any and all income they received, and it was to be deducted from their monthly cheques. If you lived in the city of Toronto, $520 wouldn’t even cover rent, never mind food, so unless you were living with family or several roommates, it was very tempting not to report income. And how could I blame my clients?
I saw scores of new Canadians, families who’d immigrated after being promised that their professional qualifications would lead to good jobs in Canada. They were disillusioned and sometimes angry. I had ex-convicts who couldn’t get jobs or who talked about doing odd jobs for cash. My most trying period was when I had a caseload of more than 150 single mothers. Caught between finding child care and pursuing child support, it was difficult for these women to think about finding meaningful work, even if they had enough education to find good jobs. There were also a lot of bad boyfriends whom we often suspected of living with our clients, sometimes contributing financially and sometimes sponging off the already meagre income of the households.
Over time, the work became more and more stressful as I realized that as a front-line employee, I had no power to change the legislation I was enforcing. I grew frustrated not being able to really make much of a difference in the lives of people who wanted help. Even more frustrating was seeing how many people had given up completely, simply content to take whatever small amount they could get. I saw some of my co-workers who’d been there a long time treating people rudely and without compassion. Things must have been bad enough that when an opportunity to sell computers in a retail store came up in 1998, I saw that as my ticket out.
I could have had a long career with the Department of Social Services. The friend who helped me get the job just received her 20 year pin from the City of Toronto. She probably has a very nice pension plan by now. I’ve thought about re-applying for my old job. That would certainly be interesting. And should I find myself back on the other side of the desk, well the rates have gone up in the past 15 years. A single person can now collect up to $626/month. Yes, that’s right. It’s less than you’d have received 20 years ago. Good thing rents in Toronto haven’t increased, right?