Eleven years ago, I started work at the Income Security Advocacy Centre, a legal clinic advocating for improvements to the income benefit programs available to low-income Ontarians, with social assistance as a primary focus. It didn’t take long before I realized how counterproductive Ontario’s social assistance system is and how much of a disservice it does to the people who are forced to rely on it, and to our society at large.
A healthy social safety net is vital to a productive and just society. It’s one that properly supports people when a good job is out of reach. When a crisis like violence, illness or family breakdown have struck. When education hasn’t properly prepared people for a changing labour market. Or when family or charity can’t be relied on for support.
When everyone can afford to properly feed and clothe themselves and pay the rent, all of us are healthier, our communities are more resilient and the enormous financial costs of poverty that we all bear (in health care, justice, and lost opportunities like greater tax revenue) are greatly reduced.
19 Improvements to Ontario’s Broken System
Twenty years after its introduction in 1998, Ontario’s social assistance system was finally starting to shift to a more supportive, rational model. But a recent announcement by Lisa MacLeod, Ontario’s new Minister of Children, Community and Social Services has put that progress in doubt.
The announcement generated a lot of public outcry, which focused on the negative impacts of eliminating the Basic Income Pilot Project and cutting in half a planned hike to social assistance rates. These moves are distressing, but there’s another story that isn’t being told. Even more was lost.
19 improvements to Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support Program were scheduled to come into effect this fall, based on years of advocacy by community members and recommendations in a non-partisan, evidence-based stakeholder report called the Income Security Roadmap for Change.
These improvements would have met many of the goals that Minister MacLeod said she wants the system to produce. Like helping people get off of assistance and into employment, decreasing the amount of time caseworkers spend on paperwork, and reducing poverty and improving quality of life, with compassion.
The Ford government’s announcement means that these improvements and others in the Roadmap are in jeopardy of being lost. They include:
- Doubling the amount of money people can keep when they work (from $200 to $400 each month), which was supposed to start this December. As an incentive to work – for people who can – that increase makes sense. And reducing an irrational three-month waiting period before people newly on Ontario Works can take advantage of that incentive also makes sense. As the government surely will agree, the faster people are allowed to benefit from income from employment, the more equipped (both financially and mentally) they’ll be able to engage in paid work over the longer term.
- Allowing people to keep TFSA and RRSPs, financial gifts from family and friends, and payments to people with disabilities from trusts and life insurance policies would end the practice of forcing people into destitution before providing support. It would encourage saving and ensure better financial security for the future. Critically, however, this change would also give caseworkers a break from having to chase down each and every penny that people on OW and ODSP get – which accounts for a lot of the 75-90% of their time on administration that Minister MacLeod rightly wants to see reduced.
- Treating people who live together the same as any other common-law couple in Ontario – by having them assume financial responsibility for one another after three years of living together, instead of the current three month requirement – would also reduce administration. But crucially, it would get government out of the way of newly-forming relationships, which have the potential to improve quality of life and allow people to leave the system over time.
- Increasing and expanding an allowance for people living in remote areas and the North, where food and other costs are so much higher, and providing more support for families with adult children who are forced to live together in dismal housing conditions on reserve. These changes – which would primarily benefit First Nation communities – would provide the kind of poverty-fighting, family-supporting, rights-enhancing support that a government for the people surely wants for us all.
The promised 3% rate increase was far from what’s needed. People on OW live on incomes that are nearly 50% below the poverty line. People on ODSP get incomes about 30% below. However, that 3% was a much-needed boost to a benefit system that suffered deep cuts in the 1990s that were never restored through 15 years of the previous government’s rule. Now, even that extremely modest increase has been cut in half to 1.5%.
The 19 first steps would have started to address the issues that people on social assistance experience with the current system. They would have addressed the deep poverty that the system perpetuates, the daily worries about finding food and paying rent that prevent people from taking steps to make change in their lives, the intrusion and invasion of privacy, the punishment meted out for infractions large and small, and the vast amounts of paperwork required to meet the system’s 800 rules. The changes would have taken us toward a much better, more humane, more compassionate and supportive system.
So what’s next?
On July 31, Minister MacLeod also announced that her government would bring in a new direction for social assistance. After a 100 day review, she’s promised to announce “a sustainable Social Assistance program that focuses on helping people lift themselves out of poverty”.
Critically, the Minister signalled that the 19 improvements may not be completely off the table. The “pause” placed on these changes may mean some or all are still under consideration. And rightly so, given how rational these improvements are and how aligned they seem to be with her government’s interests and direction.
As we’ve seen over the last twenty years and in countless jurisdictions around the world, lifting yourself out of poverty is virtually impossible without enough money to end the vicious cycle of reliance on food banks and substandard housing. And a system of supports that doesn’t punish you for being poor but instead encourages and supports both your social and economic inclusion.
We’ve seen other jurisdictions introduce measures that simply make existing systems worse, like failed policy ideas that limit the amount of time people on social assistance can collect benefits or forcing people to take unpaid work in order to claim their benefits. Failed policies like rolling a diverse set of allowances that serve different needs into one singular amount that is more difficult to access. Going down a route like this would simply further entrench the poverty that people on OW and ODSP already endure, and result in increased desperation, increased homelessness and increased costs.
If the Minister and the Ford government are truly interested in a compassionate approach to social assistance reform that accomplishes the goals they’ve set, they will revisit these 19 improvements and others in the Income Security Roadmap for Change. They’ll take an evidence-based approach to their reforms. And they’ll speak with the people who will be directly affected by any changes they make, before they make them.
Twenty years ago, a Conservative government created Ontario’s current social assistance system. The current Conservative government now has the opportunity to do what the previous government didn’t – reform and invest in the social assistance system for the better. Here’s hoping the next eleven years will see positive improvements, and not more breakdowns in a system that everyone agrees is already broken.