When it comes from government, the not-so-good news is always released toward the end of the week.
In the context of a cutback provincial budget, the announced new Social Policy Framework suggesting the province wants to reduce its role as a provider of social services, is not good news.
So Albertans are told about it on a Thursday, with reaction coming in the next news cycle Friday, and by the following Monday it’s on its way to being forgotten.
Actually, the new framework is a good-news-bad-news report. But the government has already fostered so much anxiety about how communities are going to help their poorest and most vulnerable citizens, it’s the bad news that grabs you most.
“Absolutely reprehensible” is how Red Deer Food Bank executive director Fred Scaife sees it. Talk of government becoming “influencer, convener and partner” rather than “provider,” to his way of thinking, is simply double-speak for giving poor people less.
Red Deer Mayor Morris Flewwelling sees the glass as being half full. In his experience local agencies acting as partners with provincial funders can be more efficient and effective than having government employees provide services directly.
The success of this new policy framework won’t be known for at least a couple of years, when changes in statistics on crime rates, court appearances, ambulance rides and emergency ward crowding can be compared. These are the hidden costs of failing to help people when they need it.
But a glass half full pretty well describes what community agencies get, when they enter service provision contracts with the province. I know, because I’ve helped create one of them.
A case manager working for a non-profit agency, being paid under contract with the province, earns $20,000-$30,000 a year less than someone doing the same work directly on the government payroll. The vacation and benefits package is smaller, and so is the retirement package.
Plus, the non-profit worker is expected to fundraise for services the agency provides, but which are not part of the contract.
In some cases, a non-profit case manager assisting a disabled person receiving the maximum AISH allowance — with a degree or diploma behind her — might earn about the same as her client. And the case manager does not get rent-controlled housing or her medical prescriptions for free.
Would such a worker wish to trade places with her client? Obviously not, but you can see why government would rather be an “influencer, convener and partner” in this scenario, than a service provider.
Fred Scaife sees the new policy framework as dumping part of its budget problems onto the poorest of Albertans. When you’re serving on the front lines of poverty and hunger, it might look that way.
When you’re serving on the front lines of social assistance — mental illness, addictions, homelessness or disability — it might look like the province is dumping its budget problems on you or your agency.
Robert Mitchell is CEO of United Way of Central Alberta. He has already seen the kind of worry that United Way agencies feel when policies like this come out at the end of the week, a few days before a cutback budget.
But he’s prepared to watch and see what government actually does, as opposed to trying to interpret a broadly-stated new policy document.
The goals contained in the government document actually mirror the goals of the United Way — and most other non-profits.
They wish to reduce inequality between people; not inequality of income or lifestyle (that’s effectively impossible), but inequality of security, opportunity and potential.
They want to protect the vulnerable — in too many cases, children and frail seniors. The want to centre services onto people (rather than on the definition of their disability) and to improve the way local agencies and government collaborate in making communities stronger.
Everybody I know would vote for that, and people who would vote against it, I don’t want to know.
The provincial service network I worked on years ago — along with government, professional service providers and families of people needing services — is vastly cheaper than equivalent services provided by Persons with Developmental Disabilities, for instance.
Part of that efficiency comes from paying staff vastly less, and having them volunteer to fundraise while they work. Does the new Alberta Social Policy Framework foresee more of this? Chances are good we won’t see any less.
The question for both optimists and pessimists is: will the glass remain half full?
Greg Neiman is a retired Advocate editor. Follow his blog at readersadvocate.blogspot.ca or email firstname.lastname@example.org.