Liberals eye hard-hearted fraud policy

By Brian MacLeod, Sudbury Star

It is one line on page 33 in the Progressive Conservatives' Changebook, but you're going to hear more about it.

And you're likely to hear about Kimberly Rogers, too.

"The worst repeat offenders of welfare fraud will face tough penalties, up to a lifetime ban," Changebook says.

Critics of the Tories are likely to use this, and other initiatives such as the so-called chain gangs, to stress what the Liberals have called a "dark" and "angry" platform.

The lifetime welfare ban harkens back to the government of Premier Mike Harris - in which Conservative Leader Tim Hudak was a cabinet minister - when welfare payments were slashed and the tragic story of Kimberly Rogers emerged.

Rogers died 10 years ago this week. Eight months pregnant, the 40-year-old took her own life while under six months house arrest.

Her crime was collecting student loans and welfare at the same time. Her welfare benefits were suspended for three months and she was forced to repay $13,372 to Ontario Works.

With no income for food, rent or prescription anti-depressants, she suffered in the sweltering heat of the apartment in which she was forced to stay. It was a heartbreaking death, seen by many as the result of a cruel provincial government and a heartless judicial system.

When the Liberals came to power the lifetime ban was lifted and welfare payments increased.

Hudak's position, as explained in Changebook, includes other changes. Those on welfare and Ontario Disability who work part-time will be allowed to keep more of their benefits. The rules will be streamlined. People must live in Ontario for a year before collecting benefits, a provision some say will cost the province in federal transfers.

The get-tougher, if not really tough approach, looks like a remnant of the Harris years.

A study by Osgoode Hall Law School Prof. Janet Mosher and University of Toronto Prof. Joe Hermer found that welfare fraud, although "characterized as pervasive," was actually "exceptionally low" at the time.

In 2001-02, the waning years of the PC government, convictions represented roughly 0.1% of the social assistance caseload.

At the time of Rogers' death, "Judges frequently describe the accused's poverty as being of (their) own making, and will rarely find any . compelling personal circumstances as mitigating considerations," the study noted.

"Simply being on social assistance results in one being positioned as a penal object in a climate of moral condemnation, surveillance, suspicion and penalty. This criminalization is particularly gendered in that the majority of people on social assistance are women, and the majority of them are single parents."

John Stapleton, a former civil servant with the Ministry of Community and Social services, told the website that social assistance continues to be a "bad brand." In other words, you can still take political advantage of the welfare stigma.

Ontario Works is a $2.3 billion program. In June, there were 262,000 caseloads, encompassing 473,000 people (including dependants and spouses). Expenditures are expected to rise over the next couple of years before levelling off, so a review of fraud practices is reasonable.

Hudak's welfare policies will please those who still see welfare recipients as a drain on society and thus should be subject to some penalty, just as they're likely to alienate those with a more enlightened view.

Hudak is not quite Harris' evil twin, but the Liberals will try to show that underneath his modest methods (by right-wing standards), lies the heart of a Harris Tory.