The Joys and Challenges of Advocacy
Sally Palmer with Anne Sawarna
Photo Credit: Christine Stibor
The following is written by Dr. Sally Palmer based on her acceptance speech for being the Ontario recipient of the 2010 CASW Distinguished Service Award at the OASW Annual General Meeting on June 11, 2010, in Toronto.
My connection with OASW began in 1960, when I joined the Western Branch, after beginning work at the London-Middlesex Children's Aid Society (CAS). Our Provincial President, Anne Sawarna (who is now moving into the role of Past President), and Mid-Western member, Carol Stalker, were members with whom I became long-time friends. I have always found that those who join OASW are truly altruistic, as well as being warm and giving people. Our provincial staff also demonstrate these qualities.
The Provincial Office has gradually increased its advocacy role, as seen by the causes it has supported. This team has also provided continuing support to the Hamilton Branch, as shown today by the Social Advocacy report highlighting our attempts to end the Liberal government's clawback of the Ontario Child Benefit from families on social assistance.
My own interest in advocating for individuals and families living in poverty began at the London Children’s Aid Society (CAS): I found that families who lost their children to foster care were usually very poor, and this added greatly to the stress in their lives. Twenty years later, research by the London CAS showed that 80 per cent of children in care came from families on social assistance; and we all know that social assistance leaves people far below the poverty line.
Those of you who have worked with families experiencing poverty will know that if we want to keep children from having to leave their families, we must fight poverty at a broader level. We formed the Social Action Committee of the Hamilton and District Branch of OASW in 1996, in response to the drastic cuts to social assistance by the Mike Harris government. We held an evening conference in Hamilton where we heard from our members in diverse fields of social work, who told us about the damage these cuts were doing to vulnerable people. The funding lost at that time has never been restored: it is now estimated that the buying power of social assistance is 40 per cent less than before the Harris cuts. The Liberals have made increases, but only enough to cover the cost of living.
In recent years, our Social Action Committee has had some successes, but we have ongoing challenges. The main challenges are finding the time to take social action, and maintaining members. We have had student members over the years, only to lose them when they leave Hamilton. Most of us are retired, like myself and Mel Basbaum; some do not have a social work background but are concerned about social justice; and one woman, Rosemarie, is living on the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) — she lets us know about the effects of government policies on her lived experience. The McMaster School of Social Work, where we meet, has been very supportive of our Committee, as shown by the presence of Sheila Sammon at today's meeting.
I'll mention two examples of our work—one an achievement, and the other an ongoing challenge. Our achievement was to convince the Province to give an income exemption to post-secondary students living in families on social assistance, or receiving social assistance themselves. We were approached by Rosemarie at a meeting where Deb Matthews (now Minister of Health and Long-Term Care) was our keynote speaker. Rosemarie was trying to put her daughter through university through the Ontario Student Assistance Program without getting into debt; however, any part-time earnings her daughter made toward tuition and books was designated as family income, and Rosemarie's cheque was reduced by 50 per cent of her daughter's total earnings. We achieved the income exemption with much help from other groups, such as a Hamilton legal clinic, the Canadian Federation of University Women (CFUW), and through pressure on our Liberal MPPs including help from Andrea Horwath (now NDP Leader) who raised the issue in Question Period in the Ontario Legislature. We were lucky that the Liberals brought out their Poverty Reduction Strategy after two years of our lobbying, and chose to grant our request to demonstrate their good intentions. They may have chosen it, in part, because it did not cost them much, compared to raising social assistance rates.
Our second issue is ongoing — the clawback of the Ontario Child Benefit (OCB) from families on social assistance, which began in July 2008. This is fully explained in an article published in the Hamilton Spectator, written by members of our local Branch of the CFUW. The OCB provides $92 per month per child to low-income working families, but those on social assistance receive much less. A recent analysis undertaken by the Ontario Works/ODSP Operations Advisory Committee (Hamilton) showed that a sole-support mother with a child over age 13 has only gained $8/month/child from the OCB, compared to the $92 received by working families. Other family types on social assistance have gained more, but still receive much less than working families. It seems the government has used some social assistance monies to help fund the OCB.
As a result of our advocacy, the Hamilton Mayor has written to the province asking them to stop the clawback of the OCB, among other requests related to poverty. OASW persuaded the Hamilton Spectator to run a story about this award during National Social Work Week in March, and this led to publicity for a Rally we staged at Queen’s Park at the end of April to pressure the province to end the clawback.
We need other communities to join us in our advocacy efforts with government, and OASW Branches are encouraged to approach their City Councils. We realize that other communities may have different priorities, but we must join together to fight poverty. Please e-mail me firstname.lastname@example.org
if you are willing to help us challenge the clawback of the OCB.
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