Monday, August 18, 2014

The weird tale of the deadbeat cop, and the true crime

BC's government claws back $17 million in child support payments from mothers and children living in poverty. 

Everything about the case of the disgraced RCMP officer who tried to scam a paternity test is weird.
But weirdest and most destructive is the provincial government income assistance policy that led to the crime. The same policy that ensures thousands of children will be raised in government-mandated poverty.
Cst. Greg Doncaster was a rising star in the RCMP, the Times Colonist reported, stationed in the detachment policing the capital's western suburbs.
In 2009, he had an affair. The woman became pregnant. Doncaster told her he wouldn't leave his wife. His marriage was too important.
So the woman agreed to raise the child -- a girl, as it turned out -- on her own. Doncaster offered no support, financial or as a father.
Crappy behaviour on his part, but not criminal.
Then the woman lost her job in 2011. As a single mom of a one-year-old, she applied for income assistance.
She was still committed to the raising of her daughter on her own.
But the Social Development Ministry demanded to know who the girl's father was and why he wasn't paying child support.
Not because the government has any interest in the child's well-being or rights. The government wanted to track down the father, make him pay child support and deduct the payments, dollar for dollar, from the women's income assistance cheque.
The woman gave in and handed over Doncaster's name. You can be cut off benefits if you don't.
The ministry tracked him down and he denied being the father, fearing the revelation would wreck his marriage.
Getting their man
So officials demanded a paternity test. Doncaster stalled and then hatched a plan to send fellow RCMP Cst. Dereck Carter in his place. (Carter pleaded guilty and received a conditional sentence and 12 months probation. If he doesn't mess up, he will have no criminal record. He is suspended without pay and facing an RCMP disciplinary hearing.)
The test results, of course, came back negative. Ministry workers delivered the news to the mother in what must have been an uncomfortable meeting.
Doncaster wasn't the father, they said. Tell us who else it might have been.
Only him, the mother said. So the ministry workers pulled the paternity test file and showed her the photo taken as part of the procedure.
That isn't Doncaster, the mother said.
And the whole thing came unwound. Doncaster was charged with obstructing justice. He quit the RCMP and voluntarily started paying child support, including retroactive support. He avoided jail, but was handed a six-month conditional sentence.
Impoverishment by the numbers
Very bad behaviour, to be sure.
But the government's income assistance policies, including clawing back every cent of child support paid to people on income and disability assistance, does much more damage.
If Doncaster had been paying child support, the family would be no better off. The government would take all the money.
The mother and her daughter would still receive a maximum of $570 a month for rent. It is almost impossible to find decent, safe housing, especially with children, on that budget. MLAs believe they need up to $1,580 a month from taxpayers for a second residence in the capital, almost three times more than they are prepared to allow a parent and child on assistance.
The woman would get about $535 a month to cover all their other living expenses, a rate unchanged since 2007. A family bonus payment would add another $111 a month.
All in, the mom would be raising a child on $14,600 a year. That's $281 a week for rent, clothes, food, transportation, everything.
The poverty line for a single parent and child is $29,000. The government has decided this little family, and thousands of others, should live on less than half that amount.
Some 35,000 children are in families dependent on income or disability assistance. The government has decided they should live in poverty.
And it has made that decision knowing that childhood poverty does lasting damage. It increases the likelihood of illness, educational underachievement and social and employment problems. The children will suffer and society will pay for the decision to deny them a reasonable start in life.
Sending a message
The official government talking points are that it's important to claw back child support so people exhaust every possible option before they collect welfare. The unofficial rationale is that life on assistance should be really unpleasant so people try harder to get a job.
But 80 per cent of the people on assistance have disabilities or other issues -- multiple barriers to employment, in ministry speak -- that make finding work difficult or impossible.
So four out of five people on assistance face a long, maybe permanent, stay.
Which means those 35,000 children don't face a tough few months in crap apartments, underfed and deprived, the poor kids at school, before their parents get jobs and everything turns out fine.
They grow up in poverty.
If Doncaster had acknowledged his daughter and paid up, the money would have been part of the $17 million in child support payments a year the government claws back, money that was supposed to help children.
Premier Christy Clark says the government can't afford to give up the $17 million. She rejected even modest provisions, like allowing recipients to keep the first $200 a month to benefit their children. The message is that this province just is not that interested in equality for kids.
The most recent child poverty report from First Call found British Columbia, once again, had the highest rate of child poverty in Canada (tied with Manitoba).
Simply increasing income and disability assistance supports for families would reduce the child poverty rate from over 11 per cent to under seven per cent. B.C. would rank fifth or sixth among provinces, instead of tenth.
Instead, the government -- on our behalf -- has decided 35,000 children should grow up deep in poverty, because it would be just too expensive to give them a decent start in life

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Newspapers: Sponsored content, advertorials and the shifting balance of power

Norm Farrell has a useful post about sponsored content, the new name for advertorials. And The Gazetteer wondered what I thought, as a former newspaper manager.
Farrell says sponsored content is bad. 

“How should readers react when business pages are presented by an industry lobby like the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers? I don't care to pay a newspaper that presents promotional pieces of advertisers as news nor do I wish to pay a newspaper that hesitates to publish stories that affect reputations of its sponsors,” he asks.
“If the Vancouver Sun's business pages are presented by the fossil fuel industry, readers are not likely to read that shale gas is "The dotcom bubble of our times." Nor are they likely to read that British Columbia has earned almost nothing from natural gas royalties in recent years.”

The piece raises two separate questions. Are readers being misled by ads masquerading as news, and are newspapers failing to cover stories for fear of irritating big advertisers?
No one pushed Bogie around
Advertorials were always a source of conflict between ad salespeople and the newsroom. Advertorials offered businesses a chance to buy ads that looked sort-of-like a news story, supposedly gaining credibility for the message. They paid a premium for the privilege.
Ad departments wanted the result to look just like a news story. The newsroom wanted the opposite - a different type face, borders and a big label that said ADVERTISEMENT. And the editorial staff didn’t want to produce the material, believing that that could create the perception of conflict in covering related stories. (And because they thought it beneath them.)
Usually, the editorial side won the day. Readers could recognize the ads for what they were.
As long as that’s true, I don’t have a problem with sponsored content or advertorials. In at least two cases, that apparently hasn’t been true of the Postmedia advertorials. They have run on newspaper websites as if they were real content, generated by editorial staff based on their best judgment about what information readers needed or wanted.
There are broader problems. Organizations and individuals are getting slicker and more convincing in developing and distributing sponsored content, in all media. More and more content that looks like or pretends to be journalism is really advertising. (Or clickbait aimed solely at getting people to look at ads.) 
That content comes from people who can pay for it. People who can’t pay have a limited role in the public discourse.
Editors and reporters used to decide what would go in the paper each day. The process was haphazard and shaped by personal prejudices and limited resources, but it was mostly aimed at delivering something useful for readers.Now, people with money can buy sponsored content. They can train their spokespeople and manage the message. There are seven print journalists left in the legislative press gallery. The government has 278 employees in the communications and public engagement department. The spinners have a vast advantage in numbers and resources.
And newspapers, and news media generally, are in a different position in dealing with advertisers than they were in the past.
Newsrooms won the arguments about clearly labelling advertorials in part because the businesses were profitable and seen as essential by many advertisers. 
Today, newspapers are struggling to survive. The advertisers have the edge in negotiations, as companies are looking for any way to generate revenue. The risk is that advertisers will hold too much sway.
A few advertisers have always sought to influence content. My position, while managing newspapers, was that it was in the long-term best interests of advertisers to accept that they had no special sway. Readers bought newspapers because they believed the information was selected based on their needs. If that was no longer true, readership and credibility would fall and ads would be less effective.
It was easy to say no to an unreasonable request - nicely - because the newspaper could cope with some lost revenue and be reasonably confident that any boycott would be short-lived. 
That has changed. Struggling businesses are more easily pressured. That’s not a slam on the people who work there, simply an acknowledgement of reality. When shareholders and analysts are awaiting quarterly results, or hedge funds are looking to get their money back, it’s harder to make decisions, in grey areas, that risk revenue.
Newspapers were sometimes accused of arrogance in the past. But arrogance brought with it a certain independence. 
It’s interesting that we are having this discussion. Newspapers, for all their stunning faults, have at least established a code of ethics around their relationship with readers. If they hadn’t, there would be no possible breach to consider.

Friday, August 01, 2014

Government's $40-a-day payment to parents bad news for teachers' union

The government’s promise of $40-a-day payments to parents if schools are closed in September is an astute tactical move.
The plan, announced by Finance Minister Mike de Jong Wednesday, is a triple threat to the teachers’ union efforts to make gains in a new contract.
First, the payment - $400 a week for a family with two children in school and under 13 - will mute, at least a little, parent protests if schools are closed in the fall.
Second, the money government saves when schools are closed - about $60 million a week - will be taken off the table. The BC Teachers’ Federation won’t be able to argue it is available to help reach a settlement.
And third, the promise reinforces the government’s claim that it won’t legislate teachers back to work quickly, a point de Jong made again Wednesday.
That might be the most important part. 
The average teacher has lost about $3,500 in gross pay because of the stupid two-week strike in June. (Stupid because it hurt teachers and put no real pressure on government.)
That stung. But a long strike, even five or six weeks, could cost another $20,000, with a risk of no gains at the end.
Of course, the government could be bluffing, parents might be angered by a September strike and the Liberals could be forced to legislate teachers back to work. I still think that’s the most likely scenario.
But for many individual teachers, even the likelihood of a long strike would be dismaying.
Unlike many unions, the BCTF had only a tiny, immediately exhausted strike fund.  (That too raises questions about why a union that takes in at least $30 million a year in dues had no strike fund for a dispute everyone anticipated.)
The BCTF needs to increase public pressure on the government to make gains, but it hasn’t really succeeded. The public discussion is all about wage and benefits, not class size and composition issues. Teachers’ pickets to block school maintenance but irk administrators, but seem irrelevant - or destructive - to the public. 
The union can push for mediation for a few more weeks. It’s a reasonable position.
But its next move then should be to announce it was ending strike activities to give government time to consider a new bargaining approach and to wait for court appeals in the class size and composition decision.
Schools would open, unless the government was foolish enough to continue its partial lockout or go to a full one. And the union could work under the terms of the current contract regroup and plan a better approach to negotiations.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Honduras, and the U.S. border crisis no one is talking about

The Honduran kids are starting to pile up in detention centres along the U.S. border. Since Oct. 1, about 52,000 “unaccompanied minors” have been caught by by U.S border patrols in the southwest. Hondurans, Guatemalans and Salvadorians mostly.
That’s extraordinary. About 200 kids caught every day, after a dangerous, frightening journey of at least 2,400 kilometres. Likely 60,000 kids this year.
When 599 Chinese migrants showed up in rusty boats on B.C. shores in 1999, Canadians were plunged into panic. 

The same number of young migrants get arrested on the U.S. border every three days. Others make it across without being caught, or turn back on the journey.
They’re political fodder in the U.S., their stories reconstructed to fit the narrative desired by each side. 
Really, they’re kids. Some set out on incredible journeys on their own. Others were helped by families who took on huge debts - $4,000 to $6,000 - to hire a coyote. When their children are caught at the border, and returned, the debt remains.
The road to the U.S. is littered with bodies. The journey often involves riding a freight train called El Bestia. Gangs prey on migrants.
Imagine the desperation of parents who send their children on such a journey.
Canadians should understand the impulse to seek a better life. About 96 per cent of us come from somewhere else.
Those days are gone. Even as trade agreements removed barriers so capital and goods could move freely between countries, workers weren’t allowed the same freedom. They were trapped.
It makes sense for a Honduran kid to gamble on the journey to the U.S. They have seen the benefits - almost 20 per cent of GDP is money sent home by foreign workers, mostly in the U.S., mostly illegal. Everyone knows friends or family members who have made the trip. (And everyone knows people who have started the journey and never been heard from again.)
The U.S. is trying to turn back the tide. It’s fighting rumours an amnesty applies to minor migrants. This week, Homeland Security director Jeh Johnson warned parents of the risks children face travelling to the U.S.
But the day after Johnson’s warning was released, the U.S. State Department updated its travel advisory for Honduras. 
“Critically high” levels of crime and violence. Highest murder rate in the world. Corrupt police. Crimes often not even investigated and criminals operating “with a high degree of impunity throughout Honduras.” Narcotraffickers  and gangs, “known to commit crimes such as murder, kidnapping, extortion, carjacking, armed robbery, rape, and other aggravated assaults.”
Overblown, I’d say.
But if that’s the official U.S. governments position, it can not be surprised that Honduran teens are heading to America.
Escaping violence is a motivation. The gangs in the cities - imports from the U.S. - kill casually.
But mostly, the young migrants are looking for a chance.
I was amazed by the hopefulness of Hondurans in our time there. There are few jobs, schools are bad and opportunities are desperately scarce. But people open small stores, or take courses to prepare for a job that probably doesn’t exist. Kids stay in school, sign up for trade courses. It is at once inspiring and heartbreaking.
Embarking on a journey to the U.S. is a demonstration of that hopefulness.
Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez tried to shift responsibility to the U.S. The children are war refugees, he said, driven out of their country by violence fuelled by the drug trade.
Americans (and Canadians) consume cocaine. Without them, the drug would not be transported through Honduras and other countries too poor to control the business.
True enough. The 43-year-long “war on drugs” is a costly, destructive failure that has enriched and empowered a few - gangs and cocaine cartels included - and accomplished, literally, nothing while resulting in hundreds of thousands of deaths. Drugs are cheaper and more available than ever.
But Honduras would be a bad place to be young even if not a single of cocaine moved through the country. Gangs and poverty and a broken society are the real problems.
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” it says on the Statue of Liberty. Canada embraced the same sentiments, without the poetry.
Except today, we don’t want those masses to show up. 
The fears about foreign workers and wages are understandable. For me, the problem is with the word “temporary.” We should welcome new citizens, not people brought here to be cheap labour and then sent home.
The kids flooding the U.S. border are risking everything for a chance at a new life. 
And we’re locking them up and sending them back were they came from.

Update: This great graphic shows where the kids are coming from.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Time for BCTF, government to prepare for fall legislated settlement (and save summer school)

I’m sure Vince Ready is busy. But I expect he also decided against getting involved in the teachers’ strike/lockout because there is no real chance of a mediated settlement now.
In a past life I was involved in labour negotiations. In one difficult set of talks, a mediator was appointed to help us reach a deal. He arrived, met with management and union, and booked out less than an hour later. The parties were too far apart, he said, and mediation would be a waste of time. Good luck.
That’s true in this dispute. There are too many issues on the table, the parties are too far apart and there’s no sign that either side really wants a deal. The BCTF’s goofy strike tactic, at a time when the government feels under no pressure from parents or public, served only to cost teachers an average $3,500 in lost pay and, by increasing their expectations, make a deal less likely. 
If the parties were really keen on a negotiated settlement, they wouldn’t have spent the last week exchanging insults through the media.
There are useful things that could be done now. The parties could agree on an independent costing of current proposals, for example. That might help identify potential areas of compromise. 
But I’d expect the dispute to continue into September. Barring creative solutions - which are possible but unlikely - a legislated settlement would be imposed just before school resumes, or after a couple of weeks of strike.
That means both sides should be focusing on winning public support for their positions on key issues. If government believes the public broadly supports the teachers, the back-to-work legislation will provide at least some gains. If not, the union will fare less well.
For the union, that means dropping proposals unlikely to win public support, like improvements to an already generous benefits plan. It means recognizing that a salary deal is going to look very much like other public sector settlements. And it means focusing on class size and composition issues.
For the government, that means quitting bargaining in public, stopping the expense of taxpayers’ money on ad campaigns fighting the union and come up with a serious response to the court rulings on class size and composition.
Practically, that means the BCTF should immediately announce that summer school classes will go ahead. There is no benefit to striking over the summer - it won’t put pressure on management to settle. And shutting down summer school will cost the union parents’ support and deprive some members of income they were counting on. (The government has already lifted the lockout for summer school.)

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Clark's pension costs taxpayers $76k a year, but disability rate increase not 'affordable'

Premier Christy Clark scores top marks for hypocrisy in explaining why British Columbians on disability benefits, and their children, should live in poverty.
Clark said this week that she knows the benefits, frozen since 2007, are too low. But British Columbia is just too poor to provide any increase. That will have to wait for some unknown future when it is “affordable,” she said.
But Clark believes it’s perfectly affordable to have taxpayers contribute $76,000 a year to fund her pension.
A single parent with one child on disability benefits in British Columbia - someone like Clark - receives $1,272 a month. That’s up to $570 for rent and $672 for everything else. They are expected to raise a child on $15,000 a year. 
Increasing disability assistance rates after seven frozen years is impossible, Clark says. Not “affordable.”
But MLAs believe that they need up to $1,580 a month for a temporary second home in Victoria to use when the legislature is sitting. That’s affordable.
They believe a pension plan that requires four dollars from taxpayers for every dollar paid by MLAs is affordable. The taxpayer contribution to fund the plan works out to an average $48,000 a year for each of the 85 MLAs.
The claim that British Columbia can’t afford to raise income assistance and disability assistance rates is simply false. 
The reality is that government has chosen to leave some 33,000 children and their families in poverty. People on assistance benefits are forced into substandard, sometimes dangerous housing, and denied the ability to afford the basics of life. 
It’s destructive for everyone. A single person is supposed to find housing that costs less than $375 and live on $122 a week. That is a grim existence for anyone, even people who are on income assistance for short periods. 
For people with few job options - those on disability assistance and with “persistent multiple barriers to employment” - it’s especially dire. They represent about two-thirds of recipients.
And government-mandated poverty is especially devastating for children. It does lasting damage to their health, educational achievements and social adjustment, and damages their prospects in life. Raising the rates now will save money for taxpayers in future, improve their lives and build a stronger province.
Clark needs to be honest. The rates haven’t been increased since 2007 because government has decided the needs of those people aren’t as important as its other priorities.
Including pay raises, pensions and benefits for MLAs.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Expect a teachers' strike in September

The chances of reaching a new teachers’ contract this month range from slim to none. 
There can always be breakthroughs when both parties sit down and bargain seriously, especially with the help of a mediator.
But that usually requires some preconditions. 
The number of outstanding issues needs to be reduced, and the distance between employer and union positions narrowed. The negotiators need to have prepared their principals - politicians and union members, in this case - for inevitable compromises.
And both sides need to feel under pressure to reach an agreement.
None of those are in place. There are still too many issues on the table for effective final bargaining - benefit improvements, prep time, salary grid changes, class size and composition. 
And the parties are too far apart. On pay, for example, the union wants a $5,000 signing bonus and raises that would increase pay by 8.2 per cent by 2017. The employer proposes $1,200 and raises that would see pay rise 4.6 per cent by the same date. The union’s proposed signing bonus would cost $150 million; the government’s proposal would cost $36 million. The union wage proposal would cost the government about $75 million more a year by 2017 than the government proposal.
The government hasn’t come up with any legitimate response to court decisions that demand bargaining on class size and composition based on the clauses eliminated when it ripped up contracts.
The B.C. Teachers Federation has raised members’ expectations, making it hard to sell any eventual compromise deal. If negotiators go public with a long list of proposals after a strike has been launched, those become the benchmarks for union members. 
And the union’s ill-timed strike is costing a typical member $350 a day in gross pay (without increasing pressure on the government). Some have characterized the $5,000 signing bonus as necessary replacement for the money they lost by striking. Their position is increasingly entrenched.
All those factors make a settlement unlikely.
So does the apparent belief of at least some participants on both sides that this process is a battle of right and wrong. Negotiations are about reaching a deal based on what is possible, not a holy crusade.
More talks in the next two weeks are unlikely to result in a settlement. But they might resolve at least a few items, or bring a little more clarity about what a final deal would look like.
But at this point, the union and government need to begin considering how they will deal with the impact of a strike in September. 
Ultimately, parents won’t stand for schools to be closed. If a deal can’t be reached at the negotiating table, one will be imposed.
Public opinion is critical in that process. If the government believes the public sides with the teachers, the imposed settlement will reflect that. If government thinks they have support, the deal will give less to teachers. 
It’s a lousy way to reach agreement on pay and working conditions for some 33,000 employees. But until the process is improved, it’s what we’ve got.