A province where everyone can live in dignity

TheStar.com – Opinion
Published On Wed Jun 23 2010.   By Carol Goar, Editorial Board

The ambitious welfare reform blueprint presented to the Ontario government last week by the 11-member advisory council it appointed six months ago, is an accurate reflection of the hunger in the province for real solutions, not just administrative tinkering. But it isn’t what the government asked for.

Community and Social Services Minister Madeleine Meilleur commissioned the group of front-line poverty workers to consult marginalized Ontarians and come back with recommendations about how the government should conduct the social assistance review it promised in 2008 and how to simplify the welfare’s system’s 800 rules.

The Social Assistance Review Advisory Council clearly exceeded its mandate. It gave the minister a long-term plan to make Ontario a province where disadvantaged citizens can live in dignity and lift themselves out of poverty.

It is extremely improbable Meilleur will do anything bold or visionary. She has been dragging her feet for 2 1/2 years on this issue, claiming her officials needed more time to prepare for the review. Had a group of anti-poverty activists not launched the review itself, it is unlikely she would have moved at all.

Judging from Meilleur’s initial response to the panel’s report, Ontarians can expect more procrastination and dithering.

“We look forward to announcing our next steps for the social assistance review in the fall,” she said. That means another three-month delay (at least), raising the strong possibility the review will not be completed before the 2011 provincial election.

“These are complex issues that require careful consideration,” Meilleur added. She’s been saying that since 2008. It has become evident that what’s missing is the will, not the means, to proceed.

Finally, she told the panellists: “We are proud of the steps we have already taken. As many of our improvements are in line with your recommendations, it is clear we are heading in the right direction.” Such a total misreading of their report defies explanation.

The best case scenario — assuming Premier Dalton McGuinty wants to keep his poverty-reduction strategy alive — is that the social assistance review will begin in September and be completed within the 12-to-18-month time frame the panel recommends.

Its proposal that it be led by two commissioners, with a group of people who have lived on welfare on hand to provide a reality check, is also reasonable.

And since social assistance (which includes disability support for people who can’t work and welfare for those with no other source of income) accounts for only 23 per cent of government spending on income security programs, it would make sense to widen the scope of the review to encompass children’s benefits, tax credits, housing subsidies, employment standards and training opportunities, as the panel argues. (The panel’s suggestion that federal programs such as employment insurance and the working tax credit be included is logical but problematic. It would give the province an easy excuse to blame Ottawa rather than improving what it can.)

The advisory council’s substantive recommendations — create a housing benefit for all low-income Ontarians; keep raising the minimum wage; develop a livable standard of income for all assistance programs; and rebuild welfare from the ground up — have little chance of going forward under McGuinty or Conservative Leader Tim Hudak, should he become premier.

Does this make the report a wasted effort?

No. It gave marginalized Ontarians an opportunity — perhaps their only opportunity — to tell the government what they need to become contributing citizens. It gave the public a glimpse of how little McGuinty’s much-vaunted poverty reduction strategy has actually done to improve people’s lives. And it gave the premier a chance to do better.

< http://www.thestar.com/news/ontario/article/827107–goar-a-province-where-everyone-can-live-in-dignity >

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