If you’ve never had to apply for social assistance you probably can’t fully appreciate how demeaning it can be to many who have no other option.
In Ontario Canada, the first part of the process once you reach the decision to actually apply starts with a phone call. Now phone calls aren’t so bad for most people actually; you’re speaking with someone who can’t see you after all. During this call you give a lot of personal information over the phone and at its conclusion, you‘re given a date and time for the in-person interview.
The shame and embarrassment if it’s going to be felt at all, starts for many the moment they push open those doors and enter the reception area at a local Ontario Works office. Notice the name, “Ontario Works” is proactive and sounds more appealing than the word, “Welfare”. That’s not an accident, but despite the name, many recipients themselves refer to it by the term welfare. It is what it is by any other name I suppose.
When your time waiting is done and your name is called, you and the person conducting the interview move from reception area to interview room. I have to tell you that most Intake Verification workers are real pros; they understand what sitting there being asked normally intrusive questions is like, but ask they must. To every question asked, an answer has to be forthcoming, and while most questions are matter-of-fact, when you’re on the receiving end, many of these questions probe areas one normally doesn’t share – especially with someone they don’t know. There’s no passing on an answer, and if the answer you give is a poor one, you may be subsequently asked again for a clearer or deeper answer.
With questions probing into your financial commitments and debts, bank account numbers and balances, personal identification numbers, details on absent partners in the case of applying with children and all your assets, you can find you’re handing over more than just the facts and numbers. You may feel that with your birth certificate and health card, you’re also handing over your pride, self-esteem and self-worth. It’s not a dignified process; especially if the only personal information you’ve ever handed to anyone is your doctor or a credit card to a cashier.
One of the most difficult things you can hang on to at this point is your respect. Now my feelings are that if and when you get to the point you are applying for social assistance, you should do your best to view this process as a sign of wisdom. That may sound odd. My belief is that you have finally reached a point where accepting some financial support is smarter than not doing so and ending up homeless, in a shelter or on the streets. There you may out of necessity find yourself having to do things you’ve never contemplated just to survive – so let’s not go there.
You know, in addition to applying for and receiving money (which comes from the community tax base), one of the biggest benefits is the help that’s available to move forward with respect to training and skill development. In fact, those that are on Ontario Works for perhaps the first time often are amazed at the range of help that is available that they didn’t previously know about.
Where I work, there’s workshops on acquiring life skills (nutrition, setting goals, dealing with anger), computer basics, resume and interview preparation, how to deal with stress and frustration, building self-esteem and confidence, finding career direction, workplace health and safety training and more.
Of course there are essentially two kinds of people on assistance; those that want to take advantage of the free supports and those who don’t. Whether it’s the chip some carry on their shoulder or the belief they don’t need the help, many don’t take advantage of the help to regain their financial independence. Those that do have the attitude that while unemployed, why not take advantage of all the support they can get – especially as it’s free – in order to compete successfully and get an edge over other job seekers.
Lest you think everyone should be forced to participate in such workshops, I can tell you by experience that forcing someone with a negative attitude to take a course or workshop with the threat of suspending their benefits only makes it harder on the Facilitator of those workshops and the participants who really do want to be there. Those with the poor attitudes could potentially drive off those who could benefit the most from retraining and learning, so that’s not an answer.
Respect is the one thing you can hang onto when you’re on assistance. Respect for the help offered to you, respect for those who have to resort to social assistance that you may have in the past thought were lazy or gouging the system, and of course, try your best not to lose respect for yourself.
It is in trying situations that some people become bitter, resentful and give in to being what they most fear. Others in the same situation choose to respect their decision to get help, to work hard to regain their financial independence and appreciate those who give the help they do.
Written By Kelly Mitchell
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