Five benchmarks for social assistance

TheStar.com – Opinion/Comment – Five benchmarks for social assistance
Published On Tue Oct 27 2009.   Pat Capponi Voices From the Street, Jennefer Laidley Income Security Advocacy Centre

Ontario’s fiscal woes come as bad news for the growing number of Ontarians dealing with the fallout from the recent economic storm.

As provincial coffers dry up, thousands of individuals and families also face increasing financial hardship. With unemployment expected to hit 10 per cent by 2010, there could soon be 400,000 of us out of work.

And while federal changes to employment insurance will offer some short-term relief, they may be too little, too late.

But times of crisis are also times for tough decisions, as Finance Minister Dwight Duncan said in his economic statement last week. The province has already made the tough but smart decision to stick with its economic stimulus plan. Standing firm on the commitment to early learning is another tough but smart choice.

The next bold move the government must make is to stick to its guns on a comprehensive review of Ontario’s broken social assistance system.

The commitment to review Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support Program – made in the province’s poverty reduction strategy last December – has been agonizingly slow to get off the ground.

With the first anniversary of the strategy quickly approaching, more and more Ontarians are being forced to deplete their savings and join Ontario’s swelling welfare rolls.

As the province moves to more effectively employ resources to meet people’s needs and promote economic recovery, we can no longer afford to wait.

That social assistance needs fixing isn’t a surprise. Premier Dalton McGuinty himself has acknowledged that Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support Program “stomp people into the ground.”

Not only do these programs fail to adequately provide for people’s basic needs, they offer few real supports or opportunities to help people climb out of poverty, build better lives and play their part in the economy.

Countless studies have shown the contradictions and inconsistencies in existing programs – how they make it difficult to escape the poverty trap, as too often one part of a program works at odds with other facets of the system.

That’s why the newly appointed minister responsible for poverty reduction, Laurel Broten, and the government’s poverty reduction results team must make the social assistance review their first order of business to support Ontario’s strategy for climbing out of the recession.

As Ontario considers its plan for moving forward, the 25 in 5 Network for Poverty Reduction offers the following five benchmarks for a social assistance review that will meet the test:

* The review must be grounded in a bold vision: economic security and opportunity for all Ontarians. Tinkering with Ontario Works and Ontario Disability Support Program rules is simply not enough. We need social assistance programs that ensure people’s well-being, and provide the opportunities people need to contribute to the province’s prosperity – because the province is going to need all the help it can get.
* The review must be proactive. Immediate changes must be made to unfair and counterproductive rules that deny people supports they need to get ahead – rules like asset limits that virtually guarantee more hardship, not less, and that continue to hamper Ontario’s recession recovery efforts.
* A timely process to launch deep reforms must be part of the review package. A fundamental transformation must be made to overcome the silos of current programs and make further progress in crucial areas like the early childhood years, housing security, dental care and more.
* Providing decent, adequate income supports must be a stated outcome of the review. Immediate and longer term steps must ensure that people who rely on social assistance, and all low-income people, are assured living standards of health and dignity as well as access to supports and tools, like meaningful training and education, to enable the pursuit of opportunity.
* People who have had to rely on Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support Program must have a leading role in shaping the review’s recommendations. This means seeking out and heeding the expertise of people who have been there. They have much to teach the committee – and all of us – in the review.

Right now, Ontario’s social assistance system is simply not up to the task. Making social assistance consistent with Ontario’s goals for poverty reduction and economic opportunity is the right move.

In announcing major poverty reduction initiatives in the 2008 budget, McGuinty said: “Ontario is only at its best when all of us are working, building and dreaming together. Supporting each other is not only the right thing to do, it is also the smart thing to do, and part of our plan for a stronger economy.”

Now is not the time for government to renege on its commitment to people living in poverty. Now, more than ever, Ontario needs leadership that ensures everyone will play their part and partake in our future prosperity.

Pat Capponi and Jennefer Laidley are members of the 25 in 5 Network for Poverty Reduction.

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