Ex-StatsCan chief to lead Ontario’s welfare reform
TheStar.com – News/Canada
Published On Tue Nov 30 2010. By Tanya Talaga, Queen’s Park Bureau
Ontario’s much-anticipated welfare reforms will be led by the former Statistics Canada chief who quit in disgust after Ottawa scrapped the long-form census, the Star has learned.
The hiring of Dr. Munir Sheikh is a shot across the bow at the federal government by the provincial Liberals who will make the announcement Tuesday along with future plans for the controversial special diet allowance that helps those living in poverty.
Sheikh became a symbol of public service defiance when the statistician quit on principle in July after the Conservative government scrapped the long-form census, which provincial governments use to develop social policy, in favour of a voluntary survey.
He will join Frances Lankin, a former New Democratic Party MPP and ex-head of the United Way of Toronto, in a two-person panel. They are in charge of what is billed as the biggest redraw of the welfare system in more than 20 years.
Sheikh’s resignation touched off a political crisis for Prime Minister Stephen Harper last July.
Improving the lives of the poor is “not just the province’s responsibility” noted a government source who added Ontario will benefit from Sheikh’s background in economics and federal experience.
The panel will make targeted recommendations to overhaul Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support Program. It will have the support of a special commission, made up of bureaucrats and poverty advisers.
“We are asking them to not only look at social assistance but how does it interact with things like employment insurance, the Ontario Student Assistance Program and job programs,” the government source said.
There are 334,440 people receiving ODSP benefits and another 376,719 living on welfare in Ontario as of September — a total of 711,159 people who rely on social assistance and stand to benefit from a review.
Anti-poverty groups say current social assistance incomes have the same purchasing power as they did in 1967.
The panel begins work in January and has 18 months to report back with a detailed plan on how to achieve needed reforms.
“This is not just a review, but an action plan,” said the source. “The focus here is on getting people back to work.”
It has been two years since the Ontario government made a historic commitment to lift 25 per cent of Ontario children and their families — some 90,000 people — out of poverty in five years.
But anti-poverty activists fear the Liberals are backing off on reforms due to the recession.
If they do, they won’t meet their commitment to lift kids out of poverty, activists warn.
An area of concern is the special diet program.
As of June, the ministry of community and social services said there were about 167,000 people on social assistance who receive up to $250 a month for the special diet allowance. The allowance helps people with a range of health problems from diabetes to high blood pressure buy healthier foods.
But, last fall after the provincial auditor general found evidence of fraud in the program — which had a budget that ballooned from $6 million in 2003 to more than $200 million in 2008 — the Liberals vowed to re-examine it.
The Liberals received great criticism from anti-poverty activists after they announced earlier this year they would be replacing the welfare-based special diet allowance in favour of a new, and some believe, less costly program.
Provincial nurses, anti-poverty activists and advocates for the disabled have urged the province to back off on reductions to the program.
On Monday, the second annual report of the 25 in 5 Network for Poverty Reduction was released.
The report urges the provincial government to “redouble” its efforts to eradicate poverty by making it a priority in the 2011-12 budget. The report calls for the welfare review process to begin and increased investment in training and education programs.
Mike Creek, an anti-poverty activist and spokesperson for 25 in 5, said the goal of lifting kids and families out of poverty “has been lost” due to the recession.
While the government has done the right thing in some spots — such as increasing the minimum wage to $10.25 — in other areas they have fallen down, he said.
“Unless they start to make poverty reduction a priority again, they will not meet their goals of 25 in 5,” said Creek.
“We see the effects in our community of the recession, of more people applying for OW (Ontario Works) and using food banks,” he said. “Ontarians still have an appetite to make sure people who find themselves living in poverty have their lives improved.”
The special diet needs to stay or be grandfathered until after the social resistance review is completed, he added. “My fear is we’ll put people’s lives in jeopardy by not having a really good program when they find themselves ill and need a special diet to survive.
“In my case, I had cancer and I’m sure I wouldn’t be talking to you on the phone today if I didn’t have that money to meet my nutritional needs,” said Creek, who was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma in 1993. He is now cancer free.
With files from Laurie Monsebraaten
< http://www.thestar.com/news/canada/article/898792–ex-statscan-chief-to-lead-ontario-s-welfare-reform >