November 15, 2012

Would Joseph need to sell his technicolour dreamcoat to get on social assistance?

Inequality, social assistance and Joseph: Biblical reflections of an advocacy intern on Gen. 47:13-26

Two weeks ago the Social Assistance Review Commission released its final report. The report outlines over 100 recommendations; some simply reiterate what has long been understood – and ought to be implemented immediately – while others require further discussion and scrutiny.  (For an in depth look at the recommendations, see our previous post).

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As a theology student and advocacy intern with MCC Ontario, I have found myself reflecting on the biblical narrative as I slowly digest the 180 odd-page report, and have been struck by the parallels with the story of Joseph (Gen. 37 – 50).

In Sunday school I learned that God was with Joseph and prospered him (Gen. 39:2, 21, 23).  However, it seems my teachers forgot to mention that Joseph also exploits a starving people, that he is Pharaoh’s shrewd investment banker; a ruthless monopolist; the Great Enslaver. Within Joseph’s story there lies a deep tension.

As the story goes, Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dream as predicting a severe seven-year famine (41:1-32).  Of his own accord, Joseph advises Pharaoh to create a centrally-managed national savings plan (41:34-37). In the years of plenty, 20 per cent of what the land yields should be saved.  Nowhere does Joseph mention that he intends to make the Egyptians buy back their own savings, but this is exactly what happens.
When severe famine sets in, Joseph engages in three distinct transactions in the exchange economy of Egypt. First, the people exchange all their money for food (47:14). When their food and money run out, they return to Joseph to plead for assistance (v. 15).  Joseph demands that they liquidate their productive assets, namely their livestock, in exchange for food (v. 16). These were not just animals that they could have otherwise eaten, but these were livestock that would aid in household production of food and other goods.

The liquidation of their livestock provides a solution only for a year (v. 17). In the final transaction, the people offer themselves and their land into slavery to Pharaoh in exchange for food and seed (vv. 18-19).  It is notable that in Scripture the commoditization of land is intimately linked with the commoditization of people. In an Agrarian society, those without land are entirely disenfranchised from the most fundamental aspect of life; the landless poor, the orphan and the widow, and the sojourner are the most severely marginalized. The land is their final productive asset, and without it they are entirely cut off from any hope of self-sufficiency.

In the new state of affairs Pharaoh now owns everything and everyone. Joseph uproots the people from their land and moves them to the cities (v. 21). He then establishes a 20 per cent rental fee on the land’s produce (v. 24). Goldman Sachs’s got nothing on Joseph; he exploits the crisis and makes phenomenal returns for his client.

So what does this all have to do with social assistance reform in Ontario in the 21st century?  I propose that Joseph’s story offers a prophetic witness to guide social assistance reforms today.

The Commission’s report has become a major part of the ongoing dialogue on reforming our province’s social safety net. Historically, social assistance, which includes Ontario Works (OW) and the Ontario Disabilities Support Program (ODSP), has been considered the option of last resort for Ontarians.  Currently, it supports just under 860,000 Ontarians or 6.4 per cent of the population. It is only when all other avenues of self-reliance have been exhausted that one ‘qualifies’ for assistance.  Asset testing is an important way to assure that all other avenues have indeed been exhausted before qualifying for assistance, as well as ensure fairness in terms of those who qualify for assistance. Asset limits, however, have come under much scrutiny as they force people into abject poverty before assistance can be accessed which means it is even more difficult to move out of poverty as time goes on.

Current asset limits are set incredibly low. For a single person to be eligible for OW he or she may not have over $599 in liquid assets (those which can be easily sold for cash); for a lone parent with one child the limit is $1645.  There is a complex set of rules defining exempted assets, but many applicants are forced to cash in non-locked-in RRSPs, sell vehicles and dip deeply into other savings just to qualify. During the recent recession, as people lost their jobs, those who wished to qualify for OW were forced to sell RRSPs at the height of the financial crisis, realizing large capital losses.

In the extreme example of the story of Joseph, they must sell everything - their productive livestock along with their most basic and fundamental productive resources: themselves and their land. This leads to an unimaginably unequal society; it leads to an economy of enslavement with no hope for self-sufficiency. The correlation to our present day situation is obviously not 1-for-1; Joseph runs a social assistance program ‘for profit.’ However, Joseph’s story offers a prophetic vision of the consequences of a system that enforces stringent asset limits. In the tradition of the prophets, this is a vision that cries out against the unjust ways of life in our society.

A recent Broadbent Institute report demonstrates that inequality in Canada has been rising since the 1980s.  Not only is there growing evidence to suggest that inequality has significant costs for a society, the report finds that many Canadians are deeply concerned with this trend.  Are the strict asset limits of Ontario’s social assistance programs helping to drive this trend?

Many argue that these draconian limits hinder people’s ability to leave social assistance and recover from economic shocks. Assets that may significantly assist an individual to find sustainable work, such as a car or an address, may have been sold off. Furthermore, they are expected to sell off assets that provide a vital financial buffer in a precarious labour market.  Once on social assistance they are penalized if they start rebuilding this buffer, and benefits are revoked far too early, leaving them in a highly vulnerable state.

The Commission’s report has recognized this, and has made several recommendations for immediate implementation.  First, it recommends raising the liquid asset limits for OW to harmonize with ODSP: $5000 for singles and $7500 for couples.  They also recommend that all long-term saving vehicles up until a limit of $60,000 be exempted, while recommending that all primary vehicles be exempted from the calculation of assets. Evidence from Quebec and Manitoba suggest no significant impact on case loads from raising asset limits.

The government should act immediately to increase asset limits.  These recommendations have long been discussed, and the social assistance review only adds to a large body of evidence suggesting the detrimental effects of low asset limits.

Joseph shows us where a poorly designed social assistance system could lead us: to a society with deep and systematic inequality. Some will likely retort that I am missing the ‘theological’ point of the story: God’s will was fulfilled (45:5-8; 50:19-20). But let us not forget that it is out of this very society that God must intervene to rescue His people; it is out of this society that the cries of the enslaved reach His ears (Ex. 2:23-35); and it is precisely against this exchange economy, which demands liquidation of everything for food, that the biblical writers contrast God’s freely given provision of food in the desert (Ex. 16). 

Ontarian’s face a very clear choice. What future do we want for our society? It will be beneficial to all to immediately raise asset limits and create a social assistance system and safety net that contribute to reducing, not increasing, inequality. 


Simon Beck is an advocacy intern with MCC Ontario and currently a student at Wycliffe College, University of Toronto.  He holds a BSc. in Accounting and Finance from the London School of Economics and an MPhil. in Economics from the University of Cambridge.


  1. The Joseph analogy is very provocative. Thank you Simon and Kaylie

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