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Jun-19-2009 15:20printcomments

The Real Battle of Alberta

There is a global recession on and it's going to get worse before it gets better.

Alberta, Calgary
Photo: alberta.ca

(CALGARY, Alberta) - For the well fed and somewhat inebriated, the Battle of Alberta is all about the rivalry between supporters of the Calgary Flames and the Edmonton Oilers. But the real, unpublicized, Battle of Alberta is about the actual social war between the Government of Alberta and many of its citizens, particularly the poor and the working poor.

Three months ago Dalton McGuinty, Premier of Ontario, assailed the public welfare system, saying that "unwittingly, we have developed a policy that stomps you into the ground." At the same time he admitted he had no solution to the situation.

The government of Alberta (and Ontario-in fact the governments of every province in Canada and every state in America) is in a low-grade civil war with its own citizens. Although the war in Alberta had begun in earnest a decade or more earlier, the first public shot was fired when then Premier Ralph Klein arrived drunk at a men's homeless shelter eleven days before Christmas in 2001. He harangued the inmates for not having jobs (some do, they just don't make enough to afford the city's high rents), threw the money from his pocket on the floor, then walked out to his waiting limousine. It was a one-sided battle. What weapons do the poor have?

Recipients of public assistance are the stompees. Who are the stompers? Those people who administer this inhuman and inhumane system.

We know about the Jewish Holocaust of the Second World War. It happened for one reason and one reason only. Hundreds of thousands of ordinary people just did their jobs, without really questioning what they were doing. I'm not thinking about the men who ran the gas chambers and similar atrocities, but the otherwise ordinary men who maintained and operated the thousands of trains that carried millions of people to their deaths. Off the job they were probably loving sons, fathers, husbands and uncles. They knew what the contents of the boxcars were and the fate of the occupants, but they were just doing their jobs.

Compare that to the faceless stompers who toil in the public welfare bureaucracies. It doesn't matter, it seems, what happens to their clients-evictions, eating out of dumpsters, arrest and criminal charges if they shoplift for food or other things they need. They get off work and drive home-probably in the suburbs. None of them are rich, but none of them are poor. Personally, I wonder how they can sleep at night. Do they talk about their job to their spouse and recount how many people they stomped that day?

I discussed this with a supervisor in the system. Alberta doles out $583 to a single person-made up of two components: $323 is a shelter allowance and $260 is for food. I asked her if she could eat on $260/mo. As a single person, she replied, that she could.

As a single person with everything else taken care of. But she would have no car because she couldn't fuel or insure it. She would probably have no phone and what about utilities, clothing needs, incidentals—even entertainment. How would she get around?-fare on a bus in Calgary is $2.50 and a monthly adult bus pass is $83. The zoo? Daily admission is $18 plus tax over the summer, $16 the rest of the year. The only thing that's really affordable is the Public Library-a card is $12/year. You just have to find a way to get there. (Actually, if you show your social assistance card, they'll waive the fee and give you one for free.)

In the 1930s John Gray, on the Canadian prairies, found himself on relief. In those days he said:

"We received no cash in relief, and for the first year no clothing whatever was supplied. Relief vouchers covered food, fuel and rent, and nothing else. But we needed other things-many other things like tobacco and cigarette-papers, tooth-paste, razor blades, lipstick, face powder, the odd bottle of aspirin, streetcar fare, a movie once a week, a pair of women's stockings once a month, a haircut once a month, and a permanent twice a year. Most people tried to find twenty-five cents a week, every week, for a newspaper. Unexpected needs continually cropped up, like needles and thread, darning wool, a bit of cloth for fancy work, a pattern for making a dress, a half-dollar every other month for a co-operative half-keg of beer for a neighborhood party at which the Woodyard could be forgotten. The catalogue of essential trivia differed from family to family, but it seldom added up to less than a rock-bottom minimum of $1.50 a week."

Most of those things are still needed today in one form or another, but there is no provision for any of them in our stomp-'em-down system. And none of them are really luxuries-they are just incidentals to make life bearable. They don’t need to buy a newspaper because most of them are online. Silly me—how could a welfare client pay for an internet connection? TV? No cable, of course.

Frances Piven Fox, originally a native of Calgary, has written the ground-breaking book Regulating the Poor: The functions of public welfare. Relief, she says, performs a "labour-regulating function."

"Some of the aged, the disabled, the insane and others who are of no use as workers are left on the relief rolls, and their treatment is so degrading and punitive as to instill in the labouring masses a fear of the fate that awaits them should they relax into beggary and pauperism. To demean and punish those who do not work is to exalt by contrast even the meanest labor at the meanest wages.”

The current minimum wage in Alberta is $8.80/hour for a gross of about $1,525/month. The amount given to a single recipient of public assistance is $583/month or less than 40% of the minimum wage. That amount, if a person were employed for 40 hours/week is about $3.35 an hour. Are you disgusted? I certainly am.

These are the people I call the economic dead. Of no further use to the capitalist profit-making machine, they are thoughtlessly cast aside with no public defenders.

According to government statistics, 1.6% of Alberta employees work for the minimum wage. Recipients of public welfare are obviously far worse off than the lowest paid workers in the province.

This is the result of man's inhumanity to man under the capitalist system. If people want to be entrepreneurs and make as much money as they can by working 70 or 80 hours/week, go for it. But our system that supports this ethic has made it difficult, if not impossible, for almost everyone else who just wants to work to live and not live to work.

How many of the economic dead did not actually commit suicide but were, instead, murdered by layoff, downsizing or offshoring? Most of them. Look at the tens of thousands in Ontario and Michigan alone who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own?

There is a global recession on and it's going to get worse before it gets better. Many people, perhaps even you, are just one or two paycheques away from economic disaster and homelessness. By then it will be too late for you to do anything to make the system better for everyone. You'll have been stomped down.

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HelenMaire Lineham June 21, 2009 9:55 am (Pacific time)

I agree entirely with this article, the Alberta gov't is a social and humanatarian disaster and I live for the day when they are finally booted out. They have cut social programs, turned all the profitable thins like utilites and liquor sales over to there buddies, have a secret agenda to gut out health care system what can I say......

Nick Burman June 20, 2009 7:54 am (Pacific time)

This article fits my own world view almost exactly. Free enterprise is all well and good. However, when personal and corporate behavior is driven by this alone it becomes as hard on some individuals as does Communism or Nazism.

Daniel Johnson June 19, 2009 4:03 pm (Pacific time)

One thing I learned since I wrote this article. I asked another supervisor about whether homeless people were eligible for assistance. No, not without an address. So that's why we have more than 4,000 homeless people on Calgary streets--men, women and children.

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