The August 9 death of Kimberly Rogers in Sudbury, Ontario, raises serious questions about the criminalization and feminization of poverty in Canada. By now, the facts and personal circumstances surrounding Kim's case are well known. She had been charged because she received student loans and social assistance at the same time. Kim pleaded guilty to a charge of welfare fraud in April. Her Ontario Works benefits were cancelled for three months and she was sentenced to six months under house arrest.After her conviction, Kim's legal team launched a challenge of the suspension of benefits and the constitutionality of the law itself. The case will be heard this September in Toronto. Experts agree the results of this Charter challenge will have resounding implications on welfare law across the country.Executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, Kim Pate, says this case speaks to, "broader issues regarding the context in which Kim was set up to fail in the first place," and that the judicial challenge should serve to "interfere with such illegal practices."Her lawyers had argued to have benefits reinstated, at least until the Charter challenge ended. They said that the welfare ban violated Sections 7, 12, and 15 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Justice Gloria Epstein then granted an injunction, which allowed Kim back onto social assistance. The house arrest sentence, however, remained unchanged.She was eight-months pregnant when she died. The arcane option-eliminating practice of house arrest for poor people is not unique to Ontario alone. In Nova Scotia, welfare reforms that became law on August 1 call for benefits to be cut from anyone sentenced to more than thirty days of house arrest.Efforts to criminalize poverty are real. The 1997 study, "We're Being Cheated! Corporate and Welfare Fraud: The Hidden Story," published Canadian Scholars Press, studied welfare-fraud convictions. It found that, of fifty cases, 80 per cent were sentenced to time in prison - one of the highest percentages of incarceration for any group of defendants, outside of murderers.The feminization of poverty is undeniable. Example: over 10,000 people, primarily women and single mothers, were cut off social assistance in Ontario in 1995 due to the new definition of spouse in welfare law. This very definition was declared illegal in June 2000 because it violated the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Further, the Ontario government cut child-care subsidies while requiring single parents to participate in workfare.The Ontario Tories declared war on the poor nearly a decade ago, mounting a multi-pronged assault: workfare, a welfare-fraud hotline and questionable new investigation procedures. Harris understands wartime propaganda: despite evidence to the contrary, his team works to convince the public that poor people are not really poor - they are cheating the system and should be punished.In fact, improper welfare payments - usually a result of error - do not constitute even a small problem. A 1997 report indicates there is less "waste" in the welfare system than in most other large government systems. The study showed that corporate crime, white-collar fraud and tax evasion in Ontario cost the public far more every year than the entire cost of the social-assistance system. By March 1997, Harris' "Welfare Fraud Hotline," introduced in 1995, had brought ninety-two allegation referrals to police, of which thirty-two went to the Crown Attorney, leading to a whopping nine convictions.Advocates say the best way to deal with welfare fraud is prevention, not recovery or punishment: "The crackdowns by welfare police result in high human cost, as well as civil and human-rights violations," asserts Josephine Grey of Low Income Families Together (LIFT), "Instead of reviewing internal systems, investing in worker training and improving the eligibility requirement processes, they perpetuate poverty. It's a witch-hunt. Why don't they attack poverty instead of attacking the poor? It's barbaric."A November 2000 evaluation by the Ontario Social Safety NetWork of the Tories' attack paints a dark picture. Maximum welfare benefits were cut in October by 21.6 per cent. On average, a single person receiving maximum welfare suffered a decrease of $150 per month. Last year, the maximum amount that a single person received for shelter was $325, while the average monthly cost of a bachelor apartment in Ontario was $561. After paying for shelter, a single parent with one child had only $2.24 per day to spend on food, transportation or user fees for public services. In February of 1998, 62 per cent of the people on welfare in Toronto were using some of their "basic needs" allowance toward shelter costs - up from 34 per cent before the Harris rate cuts.Everyone knows that welfare benefits, across the country, have long remained far below the poverty line. And while cost-of-living increases over time, maximum welfare benefits have gradually eroded. In Ontario, maximum welfare benefits for a single parent with one child dropped from 75 per cent of the poverty line in 1995 to roughly 60 per cent in 1998.The day-to-day reality for people on social assistance is real.The federal government's own statistics acknowledges the problem. Data from the 1998-1999 National Population Health Survey - a Statistics Canada report released this August -reveals that roughly 3-million people in Canada are "food insecure."In a 1998 study, nutritionists at the University of Toronto found that seventy per cent of single mothers using food banks in Toronto had gone moderately or severely hungry over the previous year. Among coping mechanisms cited to avoid going hungry: non-payment of utility bills, selling possessions or buying food on credit.Front-line advocates are among some of the first people to sound the alarm about the thousands of people for whom the Canadian social and justice systems do not work. They are grieving the death of Kim Rogers at many levels. Amanda Chodura, director of the Sudbury Elizabeth Fry Society, spent many hours with Kim during her ordeal. She says, "I don't feel guilty. We did everything we could. But I do feel guilty as a member of a society that could allow this to happen."Chodura says that - at a grieving session held last week for those who worked with Kim on the case, including workers from the Better Beginnings (pre-natal health) group and community legal clinic - advocates were grappling with a number of emotions. Meanwhile, people continue plan next steps at local meetings."The case brought on such profound feelings of hopelessness," says Chodura. Comparing the sentence of house arrest and welfare ban to "the modern scarlet letter," she admits that many service organizations were reticent to lend a hand, given Kim's guilty plea. Nonetheless, the overall feeling is of resignation. "We know we've got to keep doing what we're doing. It's more important now than ever."Public reaction to the tragedy has been deep and far-reaching. Vigils have taken place in communities across Canada, and most particularly throughout Ontario.A number of local and regional groups have held rallies and actions, calling for an inquest into the death of Kim Rogers, and on the Ontario Tories to reinstate and increase benefits and related programs. National organizations are doing the same. The Legal Education and Action Fund released a media statement last week calling for an inquiry, while the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies and the National Anti-Poverty Organization are planning a joint application for intervener status at the imminent inquiry.Says Bonnie Morton, president of the National Anti-Poverty Organization, "We said when the CAP was eliminated that people would start to die. She (Kim) may not be the first, but is the first we know of in such a circumstance. The way social policies and political commitments are handled in this country, Kim will not be the last who's suffering ends in tragedy."
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