KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – A single disabled woman, Donna, (not her real name) goes to university part time. Her books are paid for; a grant pays for her tuition. Her travel expenses to and from her university are paid for. Her housing needs, such as heat, are covered. So are her meds, and she has access to funds for a special needs diet to assist her with her disability as well. Even a mobile phone is covered. Donna lives in her own small but mortgage free home.
Two counties away, another single woman,Leslie, (also not her real name) is similarly disabled. She had to have an advocate fight for her right to a telephone. Leslie also had to fight for housing needs such as heat to be covered. Two years ago, Leslie spent the winter under her blanket with a heating pad as her heating needs were rejected for funding. She lay there, under her blankets with her heating pad and listened to her pipes freeze and burst. Her meds are covered but her transportation is limited. Leslie also lives in her own small but mortgage free home.
What do these two women have in common besides a disability? They are both on social assistance. But Donna has a caseworker who cares. Donna’s caseworker knows the Department of Community Services policies and uses them to assist the clients. Donna’s caseworker tells her of programs that are available to her both within the department and within the community.
Leslie’s caseworker on the other hand is not up to date on the policies of Community Services and the little that her caseworker does know is used to punish her clients. Leslie’s caseworker uses intimidation tactics, such as threats to cut Leslie off assistance if she wants too much information or asks questions her caseworker cannot answer. If Leslie’s caseworker knows of any resources for Leslie to use in the community, Leslie is not told about them.
Why are these women in many ways so strikingly similar treated so differently? It often comes down to the Income Assistance caseworkers and the personal biases they bring to their job. Caseworkers who know their department’s policies, know the community resources, have empathy and don’t judge their clients make all the difference to the quality of life of their clients.
Caseworkers who are insecure because they don’t know their way around the policy manual, are not aware of community resources and judge their clients on things like race, education, gender, sexuality, and family background can lead a client down the path of despair and even suicide. Many clients have attempted suicide when becoming overwhelmed, discouraged and frightened by their caseworkers at Income Assistance.
The community you live in can also make a huge difference. Donna lives in a larger community than Leslie. Donna’s caseworker did not know her prior to her application for assistance and, therefore, did not have any preconceived ideas about Donna when meeting her for the first time.
Leslie, however, lives outside a small town in rural Nova Scotia. One of those towns where everybody knows everybody. The area is steeped in preconceived assumptions about poor people and why they are poor. People know each other’s family history for generations back. Small town gossip leads to rumours flying around and, when someone such as Leslie applies for assistance, many of the staff in the small office may have already heard rumours about her and have ideas about who she is and how she is to be treated.
The other factor may well be plain old racism. Donna is white; Leslie is Mikmaq (off reservation without a card). Is Donna being treated better because she is white? Is Leslie treated so badly because of who she is?
The difference in their treatment may be one or a combination of any of these reasons. When you are on income assistance the personal biases and attitudes of your case worker can often be the difference between living with some dignity and resources or suffering from anxiety and thinking about suicide.
Not all caseworkers are bad people; some sincerely want to help their clients despite the fact that they are working within the constraints of a system that is based on punishing the poor.
Others see the poor as objects of scorn that must be pushed off the welfare system by making their lives so horrible that they will opt for anything other than social assistance even returning to abusive relationships , dangerous jobs, ill health and depression.
The treatment of vulnerable people should not be subjected to the whims of a bad caseworker
Just as caseworkers evaluate their clients on an annual basis, clients also must be permitted to evaluate their caseworkers on a regular basis on criteria such as as their treatment of the clients, their knowledge of resources, and their willingness to be true advocates and go to bat for their client.
These evaluations must be used to improve the service provided to the human beings they serve, to weed out the caseworkers that should not be in that job, and to recognize those caseworkers who are doing a tremendous job of helping their clients. That would be a simple start to the overhaul of a monstrously abusive system. It’s time to treat people with the dignity they deserve.
If you can, please support the Nova Scotia Advocate so that it can continue to cover issues such as poverty, racism, exclusion, workers’ rights and the environment in Nova Scotia. A pay wall is not an option, since it would exclude many readers who don’t have any disposable income at all. We rely entirely on one-time donations and a tiny but mighty group of dedicated monthly sustainers.