800-rule welfare system assailed

WindsorStar.com – business
June 29, 2011.   By Don Lajoie, The Windsor Star

As she begins consultations in the city with Canada’s highest unemployment rate, the woman charged with reviewing the province’s welfare system says a fundamental overhaul is needed to help lift families from poverty.

Frances Lankin, recently appointed commissioner of the province’s new Social Assistance Review Commission, told the general meeting of the United Way for Windsor and Essex County Tuesday that the system may be too complicated and irrational.

“We’ve been asked to simplify the rules,” said the former NDP provincial cabinet minister. “There are now 800 rules. How does anyone navigate through? It’s not humanly possible for a caseworker to know all the (eligibility) rules without bogging down in administration …. There’s no time left to help families.”

In addition, she said, the benefit rates, which are supposed to guarantee a basic living for recipients, seem to be based on random numbers.

“It’s not rational,” she said. “It’s not related to how much it may cost for shelter, healthy meals, clothing.”

A typical single recipient gets about $580 a month and a family with children might get $900 monthly.

“The rates are very low,” said Ronna Warsh, the city’s commissioner of community development and health. “That’s why people are using food banks. After paying rent and utilities they have nothing left to feed themselves.”

As of May, 10,117 Windsor area residents and families were enrolled in the Ontario Works program with the city’s social services department. That number is down less than half a percentage point since the beginning of the year, but up nearly one per cent from May 2010.

Warsh, said that number would be “at least 500 families higher” if not for innovative programs the city has developed in partnership with employers, investors and the regional economic development commission, to match assistance recipients with jobs.

Two years ago, only two per cent of welfare recipients went to work each month in Windsor. That number is now 26 per cent.

“It has been very successful,” said Warsh. “It just makes common sense. To get people off assistance you need to work with employers.”

Lankin called it an urban myth that people can do better staying on welfare than earning a wage working. But she added, the number of working poor is on the rise and, even after the recession, there is no guarantee earning power will ever fully recover for many.

“Therein lies the challenge,” she said.

Lankin said Windsor was chosen as the place to begin the community consultation process because of its high unemployment rate and the fact it has “taken the brunt of the recession,” and also because it is a “resilient community” that knows how to reinvent itself.”

Lankin said the commission, will criss-cross Ontario to meet with social service providers, charities, agencies and the public to find ways to more effectively get people back into jobs while continuing to provide financial assistance for those who are not working.

Lankin said low-wage and part-time jobs, as well as contract work, are the fastest growing sectors of the economy.

She said government cuts to welfare rates over the past two decades were made to encourage people to seek jobs. However, with the job market offering lower paying jobs, and families living below the poverty line, we may now be in “a race to the bottom.”

Lankin acknowledged the outcome of the election may end up determining the shape of any resulting reforms.

“I don’t have a crystal ball,” she said. “We’ve met with the social assistance critics from the opposition parties. But, at the end of the day, the government will decide what to do with the report. Our job is to build consensus, to find solutions that can be acted upon.”

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