Review: Humans & The Welfare State

Poverty is called a trap, though millions of Canadians have escaped it using subtle and very human methods. The Department of Employment, an anti-poverty agency, is not good at this. “The welfare state, which imposes order from above and requires specific outcomes, fails on many levels,” write Joe and Stephanie Mancini. “Access to basic necessities of life is often denied because someone does not fit into bureaucratic categories, or because they cannot navigate complex rule-based systems.”

The Mancinis’ Transition To Common Work is a crisp critique of the welfare state written by a devoutly Catholic husband and wife committed to aiding the poor. This is not a rant about the dole. It is an eloquent account of the subtle, human remedies for despair.

At the Working Centre in downtown Kitchener, Ont., founded by the Mancinis in 1982, “We became known as the place to go where there were few other options,” they explain. What do visitors say? “‘My brother died in Hamilton and I am trying to find bus fare and clothing so I can go to the funeral.’ ‘My daughter is in a hospital just outside London and I would like to visit her. Is there someone I could pay to drive me there two times a week?’ ‘I am new to Canada and I am trying to find work as an engineer.’ ‘I am living in my car but I have a dog, so I have to find a job quickly so I can find a place to live.’”

This is where the Mancini method works and Employment Canada fails. No check-off bureaucracy can resolve the small, immediate crises that are the burden of the workaday poor. At one point the couple attend an Employment Canada workshop where managers provide a fixed answer for the jobless: “Unemployment could be beaten by an organized and meticulous job search,” Transition recounts. “The jobs are out there, the system works, and it’s up to the unemployed to work hard to find them. What else could the government say? This was the same service that was paying out Unemployment Insurance claims. The Canada Employment Centre was designed with carrots and sticks. Part of its mandate was to help the unemployed find work, but it could also suspend benefits if the job search was not up to undisclosed standards.”

Later the Mancinis count the job listings at the Kitchener unemployment office: there were 560, with about half paying less than $5 an hour, and nearly a quarter of the postings part-time: “The bulk of the jobs paid low wages for unskilled labour. When we published these details in our newsletter, we received a letter from the Canada Employment Centre manager demanding that we never count the jobs board again.”

Instead they created the Working Centre. It runs a thrift store and bicycle repair shop, market garden and café. It serves a no-charge lunch and rents apartments at sub-market rates. It issues a quarterly newsletter Good Work News, and draws funding from an annual Mayor’s Dinner and a golf tournament where unions sponsor foursomes and a big prize table. It is “a non-judgmental place that offered hospitality and support for the unemployed” — without bureaucracy.

Transition To Common Work is fresh and candid. It concedes failure. The Mancinis opened a recycling depot that bundled paper and metal for scrap dealers. At its peak it employed 12 and generated $20,000 a month in revenue till it collapsed in the teeth of the Mulroney Recession in 1991: “We started with altruistic notions about recycling and sought companies and individuals eager to recycle their waste,” they write. “We learned that paper mills had no loyalty and treated us like second-class citizens, and that equipment salespeople had their own agenda.”

“The initiative had no value in itself,” Transition concludes – a lesson lost in so many anti-poverty programs. “We concluded that private and public bureaucracies expend vast sums of money administering systems that are often second rate or unimaginative and that governments tie up tax money in highly unproductive activities.”

Transition details the subtle, human methods a Kitchener couple used to better their city. It works. They proved it.  In 2014 the Mancinis received the Benemerenti Medal from the Pope for outstanding service to society.

Transition to Common Work: Building Community at The Working Centre, by Joe & Stephanie Mancini; Wilfrid Laurier University Press; 232 pages; ISBN 9781-7711-21606; $14.99

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