Living on social assistance - Macleans.ca

Living on social assistance

Looking back at the “OSAP diet” campaign

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Some time ago I wrote a couple of pieces about OUSA‘s campaign revolving around the so-called OSAP Diet. The idea was to draw attention to the fact that post-secondary students, living on OSAP, are budgeted at $225/month for food, or $7.50 a day. I’ll draw your attention to the older stories if you want to catch up, but suffice it to say that a lot of the debate revolves around whether or not students should reasonably be expected to cook their own meals and pack lunches for themselves, and whether or not a daily Starbucks “coffee” (read $5 frappasomething) constitutes a necessary food expense.

Related: The OSAP diet and the student lifestyle
Related: Budgeting for the real world

Now I’m all for giving students a livable budget for their studies, and we can debate back and forth just what that budget should be, but I was underwhelmed then and I remain incredibly skeptical now about the verbiage thrown around in context of this campaign. Students continually referred to this as “poverty” (for which no official definition exists in Canada, by the way) and suggested it was simply impossible to eat healthily on this budget. I won’t put further words in the mouths of the OUSA campaigners, however, and if you’d like to view the results of their experiment you can do so here.

My major issue, all along, is that comparisons to poverty and even starvation are rather apoplectic when welfare recipients in Ontario (excuse me, “public assistance”) receive so much less. If students imagine that they are starving on $225 a month, you’d expect those on welfare to be literally dropping dead. And in fact the reality isn’t far short of that. If OSAP represents a diet then welfare is a real famine. It isn’t so much that I resent students for their campaign for more funds as I’m rather embarrassed when it ignores such a terrible and inevitable contrast. It suggests, much as I hate to admit it, that students are fine with our most vulnerable starving just as long as they can avoid packing their meals for school.

Anyway, I was reminded of this again when the Star (which is rapidly becoming Canada’s best investigative newspaper) ran a similar experiment. In context of The Stop’s “Do The Math” Campaign the Star asked some prominent Torontoians to try living on a true welfare diet. The results were very much like what OUSA wishes it could demonstrate about the OSAP situation. We’re talking about true, desperate poverty now–visits to the food bank, reliance on public agencies, excitement at receiving a doggie bag to take home following a free lunch. The article made me cringe. Now we’re not talking about students who simply fail at cooking their own meals. We’re talking about very competent adults using every tool they have, and still struggling.

Most affecting in this story was an observation from Catherine Mihevc, Councillor Joe Mihevc‘s 11 year-old daughter, and which pretty much secured my lifetime support of his political career. Their entire family participated in the challenge, and she said that she and her sister were rarely hungry because their parents let them eat first. For me that’s a part of my immediate family history. My grandparents were refugees and their children always ate first too, when things were bad. As the children got older they knew to leave enough for their mother, because otherwise she simply wouldn’t eat. And this is what true poverty looks like. These are the strategies that it teaches.

I hate to ever set one group’s claims in direct competition with another’s. There is no reason why adequate funding for post-secondary studies needs to come at the expense of livable public assistance, or vice versa. But I do wish OUSA could have adopted a wider view on this issue, because the OSAP Diet campaign unavoidably trivializes the real problems that some people experience in simply feeding themselves and their children. It locates the needs of those who rely on public assistance outside of any operative definition of human norms. And really, that is exactly the problem with the system as is stands. No one is even trying to be realistic. Welfare is viewed as a punishment, not as an adequate amount of money to subsist on. And that has got to change.

Anyway, it’s something to think about the next time you stop at Starbucks. Or perhaps even before you do.

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Questions are welcome at jeff.rybak@utoronto.ca. You can also follow me on Twitter.