June 15, 2010

A Call to Transform Income Security in Ontario

Yesterday (June 14, 2010), the Social Assistance Review Advisory Council made public its report to the Ontario Government. The eleven-person panel was appointed in December 2009 and given a two-fold task:
- Lay out the terms of reference for a provincial social assistance review, and
- Recommend short-term reforms to improve social assistance “without adding substantial costs.”

The panel gave the Government its list of short-term recommendations last February. The Government only moved on four of those recommendations.

The Council’s Recommendations for an Ontario Income Security Review, by its very name, goes beyond the scope of their first task. Rather than simply recommending a review of the social assistance system, they call for a transformation of income security for Ontarians. That includes federal and provincial programs and everything from tax credits, employment insurance, training programs, housing, drug and dental benefits, as well as Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support Program.

The key contention of the Council is that there “is deep and continuing dissatisfaction with the existing social assistance system from all quarters.” The Council wants to see more income security and services delivered outside of social assistance. They recommend a review guided by six key strategies:
a. Building on the approach of the Ontario Child Benefit, develop an expanded range of income and services to be available to all low-income Ontarians.
b. Strengthen initiatives such as minimum wage increases, enhanced employment standards, fair employment initiatives and the federal Working Income Tax Benefit to ensure the labour market offers effective pathways out of poverty.
c. Replace short term coverage in Ontario Works with more appropriate financial support outside of the social assistance system for those who are temporarily unemployed.
d. Re-engineer long-term coverage in Ontario Works as an opportunity planning program to support achieving full labour market potential through skills building, education, training, employment and related support.
e. Develop standards for a liveable income and a process to use those standards to assess the adequacy of Ontarians’ incomes.
f. Improve income and social supports for those whose reasonable prospects of earning liveable incomes from employment are limited by disability or other circumstances, including a possible new vision for the Ontario Disability Support Program and exploring options for alternative models of financial assistance.

The Council recommends a review led by two Commissioners with an Advisory Council including representatives with lived experience of poverty and supported by a Secretariat. They recommend a review process of 12 to 18 months – which, if the review begins next fall, would run through the October 2011 provincial election. The Council also calls for “separate and substantive discussion with First Nations to ensure reforms reflect their needs and priorities.”

Urgent need to raise incomes for people on social assistance
One thing that might be overlooked in the report is the Council’s call for immediate Government action to improve the incomes of people on social assistance, particularly individuals and couples without children – whose incomes fall far below any of the recognized measures of low income in Canada.

“For this reason the Social Assistance Review Advisory Council recommends that government address with urgency the need to improve the incomes of unattached individuals and couples without children on Ontario Works. The government has a number of options for immediately increasing the incomes of unattached individuals and couples without children, through new tax credits, Ontario Works rates or a new housing benefit.”

Now that the Social Assistance Review Advisory Council has weighed in, it is up to the Government to follow through on the recommendations, both for the review and for immediate increases to the incomes of people on social assistance. Given that a review would extend past the life of the current Government, we need to hear what commitment the Conservatives and New Democratic Party will make to transforming Ontario’s income security system based on the recommended review.

1 comment:

  1. I welcome this review. For many our current social assistance provisions often are traps for the poor and underemployed rather than trampolines to participation in the economy and society. I also remain concerned about good stewardship of our public resources. For instance, the handout of the HST rebate could have been better managed. Adrian V