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October 26, 2012

The Highs and Lows of Ontario's Social Assistance Review

The long awaited review of Ontario’s Social Assistance system was released yesterday and has been received by community members, anti-poverty advocates and social assistance recipients with mixed reviews and feelings.


On the one hand, there are many positive steps that should be taken immediately to improve the lives of people receiving social assistance. 
A $100 increase in benefits for single people who receive Ontario Works support, for example, is a recommendation that has been endorsed by many groups – provided it doesn't come at the expense of the special diet allowance (SDA).  Cutting the SDA would significantly reduce incomes for many people who receive ODSP benefits and rely on the benefit to meet the special dietary needs of diabetes, celiac disease and many other medical conditions.

Increasing asset limits, earnings exemptions and limitations on the receipt of gifts will reduce barriers to exiting the social assistance system for those who are able to do so - this is a welcome and long awaited change.

Changes to the way child support is treated within the social assistance system will allow women to determine what is in the best interest of their children.  Furthermore, changes to the definition of a spouse will allow women to better maintain autonomy within their relationships.

These are all positive steps that government can take as a down payment on its promise to be a leading jurisdiction in poverty reduction.

On the other hand, there are a number of recommendations that require further thought and scrutiny as the government moves forward with the recommended changes.

The ODSP Action Coalition has laid out some very serious concerns.  At the top of the list is the recommended cancellation of the special diet allowance which, as mentioned above, will decrease incomes for many people who are living with disabilities and receiving assistance - the SDA allows people living with dietary challenges manage their illness by ensuring an appropriate diet.

Concern has also been expressed about the Pathway to Employment Plans for people with disabilities who are unable to work.  We believe that Pathway to Employment Plans should be made optional for people receiving disability benefits.   This would allow people who are able to work to access the support needed  to develop a realistic plan to enter the work force, yet allow people with disabilities that leave them unable to work to live without fear of losing their benefits.

Shortly after the report was released, John Milloy, Minister of Community and Social Services issued his response.

The Minister acknowledges that there is a need to reduce complexity in the system and he supports the overall objectives of the report.  He also committed to creating a working group to inform the path forward – this is good news.

Unfortunately, his response did not make any mention of making the investments that are so desperately needed by people receiving social assistance.  Mr. Milloy points to the cost of providing an additional $100/month to single people receiving Ontario Works benefits as being far more than the province can afford.  

Well that is all fine and dandy, but the discussion we should be having, for the good of all stakeholders is what is the cost of doing nothing??

By allowing people to live in destitution we are choosing to spend more money on health care; on emergency rooms and hospital visits.  We are choosing to spend more money on emergency shelters and food banks and we are simultaneously choosing to allow people to live without dignity and in constant need.  This is a poor financial decision and a poor decision for humanity.

There is well documented evidence that poverty leads to increased health care costs, decreased productivity and makes people sick.

By not investing in our social assistance system, our political leaders are saying they would rather pay increased costs to our health care system and, at the same time, allow citizens - the people whom they serve - to live in deep poverty.

It is also important to recognize, as the report suggests, that the labour market alone is not a pathway out of poverty.  Work in Ontario is becoming increasingly precarious as employers are more and more often offering contract work for low pay and no benefits and part time, minimum wage jobs.  Without government intervention that ensures the benefits of growth are reaped by everyone, some of us will always be 'left behind' – no matter how hard we work.

The report reminds government that social assistance must be set in the broader context of poverty reduction and income security to ensure that our economy is working for all Ontarians to eradicate poverty and reduce inequality.

As these recommendations are (hopefully) implemented, Government must provide adequate funding  to ensure that the province and municipalities are fully equipped to achieve the objectives set out in the report.  Furthermore, if block funding is provided to municipalities for service delivery, funding must be tied to the cost of living and changes in the number of people who are accessing services.  

Reforming social assistance has the potential to make a meaningful difference both in the lives of people who receive social assistance and in our communities at large.  We want to encourage government to do the right thing and move on the most important recommendations in the report by raising the rates (without cutting the SDA) and ensuring that the system is accountable to all Ontarians, including those who receive social assistance. 





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