Commissioner calls for reform

TheWhig.com – archive
July 13, 2011.    By Clare Clancy, For The Whig-Standard

Social assistance is administered through a broken system, says a representative from the Commission for the Review of Social Assistance in Ontario.

“Tinkering won’t fix it,” said Commissioner Frances Lankin. “There’s some fundamental reform required.”

Three years ago, the Ontario government announced it was embarking on a poverty reduction strategy, with a special focus on reducing child poverty.

The strategy included the establishment of a review commission, to which Lankin was appointed last year.

According to Lankin, there hasn’t been a major review of provincial social assistance since the 1980s.

“(The province is) expecting that our recommendations will propose a major overhaul of the system,” she said, adding that there hasn’t been enough discussion to know if this will be the case.

“We’re looking at virtually every aspect of Ontario Works and Ontario Disability Support Program.”

On Tuesday, Lankin attended a public discussion on the topic at the Kingston Frontenac Public Library’s central branch. There were two sessions scheduled to discuss the state of social assistance in Kingston.

“We’re coming out and joining a day of conversations in 11 different communities,” Lankin said, adding that she hopes these represent just a fraction of the discussions happening in Ontario.

Individuals who have experienced living on social assistance were invited to a morning session. Lankin said participants gave insight into the common issues faced by recipients of social assistance.

“We heard a very, very, very loud message that the level of rates doesn’t take into account what it costs to get housing in this city,” she said.

For many, expensive housing has meant that money has to be taken from elsewhere, including from food and clothing budgets.

One woman in particular described the issues some Kingston residents face, Lankin said.

If offered a job, the woman said she would need to find day-care for her children. She also lacked the resources to get to and from work.

“They are supports … she doesn’t have the money to afford. She gets trapped,” Lankin said.

These issues aren’t unique to Kingston, Lankin said.

“We heard a basic plea to make the system easier to understand.”

The Kingston Community Roundtable on Poverty Reduction, the Social Planning Council of Kingston and Kingston United Way collaborated to organize the sessions.

CEO and president of Kingston United Way, Bhavana Varma, said even small suggestions to better the system go a long way.

For example, monthly bus passes would ensure that recipients of social assistance have a way to travel to and from work.

Varma said one key issue is the loss of benefits when employment is found.

“Currently, if you’re on social assistance you get medical benefits and child care,” Varma said. “You get a job (and) you lose those, so some way of maintaining that is important.”

Rent costs in Kingston also need to be addressed, she said.

“(Social assistance is) not adjusted for the actual rent — it’s a flat rent allowance that doesn’t cover rent in a city like Kingston.”

Var ma said that although these issues have been discussed before, this time it’s different.

“Usually, we’ve stopped at what can be done at the local level,” she said. “But this is looking at the bigger picture … this will be the most important systemic change that will happen.”

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