Last week, Ontario Community and Social Services Minister John Baird boasted that for the first time since 1990, the number of people on welfare in the province had dropped below half a million. Is this a cause for rejoicing?
Not altogether. There are still more than 220,000 welfare families in Ontario. In Illinois, a state with a comparable population, the welfare caseload is fewer than 90,000.
The Mike Harris government is not to blame for this discrepancy. When it first took office in 1995, there were more than 678,000 families on social assistance in Ontario as compared to fewer than 248,000 in Illinois.
How did Ontario get into such a catastrophic welfare mess? The Liberal government of former premier David Peterson bears much of the blame. In a misguided attempt to help the poor during the latter half of the 1980s, it eased the rules for welfare eligibility and substantially hiked benefits.
The results were predictable. Despite strong growth in the Ontario economy, the welfare caseload in the province increased as welfare benefits became more attractive relative to employment at a low-wage job.
As an economic recession gripped the province at the beginning of the 1990s, Bob Rae's Ontario New Democratic Party government hiked welfare benefits even more. This was a tragic blunder. Ontario went from having the lowest to the highest rates of welfare dependency in the country.
Study after study has confirmed that employable people who rely on handouts from the state instead of an earned income are prone to depression, despair, drug addiction and family violence. Children who grow up in welfare homes are much more likely than their peers to drop out of school, have children out of wedlock and end up as adults in poverty-perpetuating reliance on welfare.
To curb this vicious cycle of dependency and despair, the Harris government began with a 20-per-cent cut in welfare benefits. The impact was immediate and gratifying. While the level of welfare benefits in the province remained well above the national average, the number of people relying on welfare handouts in Ontario dropped at a record-setting pace of almost 35,000 during the month of October, 1995.
The preceding Liberal and New Democratic Party governments of Ontario allowed tens of thousands of welfare recipients to sit back and draw benefits month after month while putting in only a token effort to find a job. In contrast, the Harris Conservatives have introduced compulsory earnfare and learnfare programs that are intended to provide most welfare recipients with the dignity of an earned income.
Illinois has done the same, only it has taken the process significantly further. As required by the welfare reforms that United States President Bill Clinton signed into law in 1996, Illinois has served notice that cash benefits for welfare recipients will be limited to a life-time total of 60 months. Thereafter, people who rely on the dole will have to get along with food stamps and private charity.
The new time limit seems to have concentrated the minds of most welfare recipients in Illinois. On Monday, The New York Times reported that of the 102 counties in the state, five now have no welfare families drawing cash assistance and another 53 counties have fewer than 20 each. Even in Cook County, which includes Chicago, the number of welfare families has dropped 50 per cent over the past three years.
Liberals insist that workfare is cruel, demeaning and unnecessary. Some, if not most, beneficiaries of the program disagree. In describing the transition to work after 12 years on welfare, a 46-year old Illinois woman told The New York Times: "It was scary. But I have more confidence now. And I wish I had gotten off public aid a long time ago."
According to the Illinois Department of Human Services, fewer than 20 per cent of workfare graduates who went to work two years ago have had to come back for more cash assistance. That's a remarkable achievement. It has not come cheaply. To succeed in the workplace, long-time welfare recipients often need considerable counselling from compassionate and well-trained workfare administrators.
But of course, the expense is eminently worthwhile. The Harris government should press ahead and improve its earnfare and learnfare programs until Ontario can at least match the success of Illinois in helping welfare dependants gain the dignity of productive and enduring employment.