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The indigence industry

By Audra Mitchell
web posted July 14, 2003

It seems another sector of the Canadian "workforce" has adopted the habit of striking. Recently, as I was walking down Ottawa's Rideau street, a found myself surrounded by a small conglomeration of waving placards and chanting voices. One of these signs caught my eye; it read: "The Homeless and the Unemployed are on Strike – Day 3".

I'm no stranger to union strikes – the Vancouver suburb where I spent my youth was replete with silver-spoon socialists and under the guidance of an NDP government. Strikes in Vancouver were so regular they should have been made provincial holidays. Yet these employees went on strike in order to torture us with their absence. Teachers refused to indoctrinate young minds, nurses encouraged us to "empty our own damned bedpans" and garbage collectors rendered our city a stagnant swamp of human filth. Much as I deride union activity, these strikes were somewhat effective - they revoked services that were truly missed. What service could the homeless and unemployed possibly be withholding by going "on strike"? Were they threatening to remove themselves from the street and live better lives? Or worse, to replace their panhandling with a dreaded minimum-wage job, thus depriving themselves, and us, of their unemployment?

The Ottawa strike of the Homeless and Unemployed was small and for the most part unnoticed, but its message is not. Labour unionization has become so common place that it has seeped into every facet of society, even those who do not labour. To make matters worse, Canada's social programs and welfare-state mentality have turned indigence into an industry.

Unions, originally formed to secure basic work standards, have been utterly swallowed by the political realm. Politics itself has been plundered by the dominance of "special interest groups" such as trade unions. If you cannot identify yourself as an "interest" group, the government is not interested in you. It is no wonder that activities such as strikes and protests seem to be the only way to get attention (or money) anymore, when the vast majority of noisy interest claims are indulged. The homeless and unemployed have long been a government-funded interest group. It is almost surprising that it took them this long to adopt the trend. Government workers and civil servants play a large part in setting this example; 71 per cent of government employees are members of unions.

It's also not surprising that the homeless and unemployed consider themselves part of an industry. After all, our government does not simply provide aid in times of crisis; it continuously pays people not to work. A lack of proper targeting and limits on welfare, which would provide the incentive for the unemployed to improve their own lives, have instead given recipients a steady income and a "job" they can't lose. In fact, keeping this job and its relative security is contingent upon underperformance by normal standards.

The welfare business has an enormous payroll. In 2002, 2 million Canadians were on welfare. This makes the industry of not working more than six times the size of our agricultural industry, which employs 330 000 people. These numbers don't even include the nearly 200 000 public servants in the welfare department, whose jobs would be obsolete if welfare recipients disappeared.

Poverty itself has spawned its own industries. I've never seen such an aggressive group of beggars as those in Ottawa, or one which more closely resembled a high-commission retail store. In the few months since I moved to this city, I have been harassed daily, blocked from moving down the sidewalk, and followed down the street and into restaurants and stores. These panhandlers fight for "good placement", develop a formulaic sales-pitch to shout at each passerby, and even organize themselves into makeshift cooperatives. Yahoo.com even has an online e-panhandling directory, where the unemployed can beg electronically. Once, a man who was haranguing me for money interrupted his tirade to answer his cellular phone. Yet what is most disturbing is the moral indignation with which I am increasingly greeted when I refuse to proffer my change purse. I was recently told by a panhandler that I was greedy to refuse him his "right to money". "Right to work" legislation is a concept with which we are all familiar. What's next, right to not work legislation ?

It has been noted for years that our welfare system provides an disincentive for the homeless and unemployed to work and improve their lives. This trend is more dangerous then it seems. Canada has not created a safety net or a even a safety hammock – we have created a multi-billion dollar welfare industry. Welfare should be a last resort, and only for those who have exhausted all other means. It should have time limits, work requirements, and diminishing payments if these criteria are not met. Our current system has removed the incentive for families and communities to care for their members, and for individuals to care for themselves. Our system for dealing with poverty has also made hard-working citizens less likely to give charitably. Why should I give to help the poor when I am taxed exorbitantly for this very reason, and when the homeless person I am apparently helping has a guaranteed salary and more "job" security than I do?

Welfare and alms are not rights -- they are a way to help those with no other options, and therefore are a privilege. Our system has branded them as entitlements that prop up an entire industry. Because its members are still poor and unemployed, the Indigence Industry feels that society has violated these fictional "rights". They are incensed, and they are going on strike.

Audra Mitchell is a student at Queen's University and the executive director of the Campus Coalition for Liberty.

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