Book a Month Challenge – Heart

The February challenge was to read and review a book about “heart”.

I intended to flake out with a fluffy and enjoyable romance but Telling Tales: Living the Effects of Public Policy (Sheila Neysmith, Kate Bezanson, Anne O’Connell, 2005) came up in my library hold queue and having read it I can’t think of a better book about heart.

The book is the final product of a three-year study which followed forty very diverse (in geography, income, ethnicity, generational makeup, etc.) Ontario households through the late 90s, interviewing them repeatedly and hearing in the participants’ own words the effects of the Mike Harris government’s policies on the participants’ lives. I read one of the early reports (c.1998) so I was very interested in the final results.

It’s about the lack of heart, really, and (although they don’t say so in so many words) the bloody-minded pointless punitiveness of the government of the day. They were elected on a platform of supposed fiscal conservatism and tax cuts, but let’s take one example from the book to see how that plays out for taxpayers. (Edited to add: this math and conjecture is mine; it isn’t from the book, although the book does include the descriptive bits I’ve mentioned below about Teresa’s situation.)

Teresa was a disabled young woman who had trained as a vet tech, but could no longer do that work because of her disability. Before the Harris government came in she was on welfare and was being retrained through the Vocational Rehabilitation Service as a medical secretary — IMO a good, suitable job for her. It would have built on her existing intelligence and skills and it is a job which allows part-time / temporary / intermittent work (because her disability might not permit her to work full-time).

Let us assume Teresa is 30 and let us assume that, because of her disability, she dies fairly young, say at 60. Let us also assume that for fifteen of her remaining years she is on welfare or doing her retraining, unable to work, so we only get fifteen years’ work out of her. Are we making a good investment in her retraining?

First, let’s give her welfare at $12,000 per year for two years for her living expenses while she finishes her college course. $24,000. But since she’ll stay on disability benefits forever unless she is retrained, she would’ve cost us this $12,000 per year even if she were not going to school so it comes out even with a permanent-welfare scenario.

Next, let’s give her tuition and books at $5,000/year. Another $10,000.

But then let’s assume that when she’s working she’s either covered or able to pay for her drugs and assistive devices herself. So we don’t have to pay for drug coverage in those years. Our total investment so far is still $10,000 additional dollars of public money.

However, during the fifteen years she does work, let’s assume she makes about $18,000 a year, and that she then pays, conservatively, 10% of that — $1,800/year — in taxes. We’ve now recouped $27,000 on an investment of $10,000 for a total profit of $17,000. Not a bad deal.

Not all of those dollars will go to the province but never mind; they’re tax dollars and I the taxpayer am happy they’re being received by whatever level of government receives them. During her working years Teresa will also be spending an additional $4,200 per year ($18,000 minus $1,800 in taxes minus the $12,000 we would’ve given her in welfare) in the community and that has further positive knock-on effects for the economy.

The Tories, naturally, cancelled the Vocational Rehabilitation Service when they came into office, so this fairly pleasant scenario never happened. Instead, they changed the rules so that you could no longer receive social assistance while also receiving OSAP. And if you took OSAP (which is not enough to pay for living expenses even for an able-bodied person) you lost not only your welfare but your drug card and your access to the assistive devices fund and all other supports. Teresa had to drop out of her course and apply for permanent disability benefits in order to retain her drug- and assistive-device benefits and thus remain alive.

Now since we’re kicking Teresa to the curb to save money, what kind of costs are we looking at?

First let’s assume that for fifteen years we come out even with the retraining scenario because Teresa would have been on welfare or doing her retraining during those years anyway.

Second, let’s be cruel and assume Teresa now saves us some money and dies at 55 instead of 60, because welfare is very bad for people’s health.

So she’s on welfare for 10 years beyond the 15 in the retraining scenario.

At $1,000 per month, which is roughly the disability benefit amount, we’re in for $120,000. Add in a conservative $100/month for drugs, and add in 5 instances of assistive-device replacement at a conservative $500 each time. Total: $134,500.

Let’s compare: $17,000 in public profit and a happy and productive client vs. a cost of $134,500 and a whole lot of misery. It makes no fiscal or logical sense.

Multiply this scenario by the thousands of people who were affected by these “cost-cutting” policy changes.

As one fairly well-off study participant noted on pp.97-98,

I have come to realize that we are living in an historical context where decision-makers are saying through their actions that we — as a society — are no longer responsible for vulnerable people. I find that very disturbing. There is something wrong with that kind of society.

Oh, and about those famous, precious tax cuts? p.166:

Not a single household spoke about the benefit of tax cuts as a buffer or replacement for needed services and employment opportunities.

You see what I mean about heart?