Fix welfare rules, panel urges provinceFix welfare rules, panel urges province

TheStar.com – News/Ontario
Published On Mon Aug 16 2010.  Laurie Monsebraaten Social Justice Reporter

Christine Watts was shocked in June when a truck pulled into her yard and threatened to disconnect her hydro. The 51-year-old Cobourg-area woman had no idea she owed $1,100 from an equal-billing underpayment for the past year.

And as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse who lives on provincial disability support and a part-time job at her local library, she had no way to pay.

Community agencies and family helped Watts cover all but $240 of the outstanding bill. But she was still short. So her employer agreed to loan her the money and deduct $80 from her monthly earnings of just under $300 for the next three months.

But under Ontario’s mind-numbingly complicated welfare rules, Watts’ loan is considered income. And under the rules, every dollar earned by someone on welfare triggers a 50-cent cut in provincial support.

It means Watts, who lives in a tiny bungalow on a rural road, will lose $120 from her $826 September benefit cheque.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” she says. “How am I supposed to get to work? What will I eat? Why does the system make it so hard?”

The government’s treatment of loans to people on welfare is among 13 short-term changes a government-appointed panel of poverty experts recommended for quick action in a confidential report last February.

Now the panel is making that confidential report public Monday to turn up the heat.

Other welfare changes the panel wants fixed include: increasing asset limits, letting single parents keep a portion of child support payments and allowing those who have been disqualified from Ontario’s student loan program to receive welfare while attending college or university.

The panel’s mandate was to identify changes that wouldn’t cost the government much money in advance of a long-awaited broader review of the system expected this fall.

Social Services Minister Madeleine Meilleur made four of the changes in March. But people like Watts are still waiting for action on the remaining nine.

The panel is publicly releasing its February report Monday to turn up the heat.

“I really hope they announce the fulsome review soon, using the terms of reference that we gave them,” said Gail Nyberg, head of the Daily Bread Food Bank, who chaired the panel.

“In the meantime, I wish they would send some of these other rules off to the finance ministry and get them changed,” she said. “They would make the life of a number of people who collect social assistance so much easier.”

In an interview, Meilleur said she will address the remaining nine rules as part of the ministry’s broader welfare review, expected to be announced this fall.

But she didn’t rule out the possibility that some of the rules may be adjusted as part of next spring’s budget, before the broader review is complete in a year to 18 months.

“Social assistance rules are very complex,” she said in an interview. It is difficult to change one rule without having an impact on other rules and even other ministries, she added.

“But I am not closing the door,” she said. “We are always looking to improve social assistance – to encourage people to get back on their feet.”

Mike Riley, 41, is a recovering addict who is trying to turn his life around.

The Scarborough man who grew up in the care of children’s aid after his parents divorced, wants to become a child welfare worker to help kids “in the system” avoid the troubles he has encountered.

But an outstanding $2,500 student loan he took out more than 15 years ago before he fell into addiction, means he may never get the chance to go to college to get the training he needs.

Riley could easily qualify for bursaries to cover tuition and books if he could continue to receive welfare while going to school, says Theresa Schrader of the Ve’ahavta Street Academy which is helping him get off the system.

But the rules prohibit an adult from going to college or university full time while collecting welfare. So Riley, whose $345 rent leaves him with just $227 from his $572 monthly welfare cheque, is stuck.

The government’s panel of welfare experts wants that to change.

“Every day is a struggle with no food in the fridge, dirty laundry piling up and no cable in my TV,” Riley says. “But I do have ambition. And I want a career, not just a minimum wage job that I’m going to hate and that won’t help me get ahead. And for that I need an education.”

John Corso was excited about the possibility of a full-time job with FoodShare this summer — until he learned that his increased income would trigger a cut in his government benefits and a spike in his subsidized rent that would gobble up most of his extra earnings.

The 47-year-old Toronto man has lived on provincial disability support since he was diagnosed with HIV at age 24. Corso had been too ill to do much of anything until about five years ago when a new generation of drugs began easing his symptoms.

“I’d really like to get off the system and go back to work, but I really need the support in case I have a setback,” says Corso, who receives $727 in monthly benefits including $250 in the soon-to-be scrapped special diet allowance.

His disability payments also cover the $2,000 monthly cost of medication to control the disease and treat his other related health problems.

Under the province’s social housing rules, people on welfare receiving rent subsidies have to watch what they earn or risk seeing their rents increase dramatically.

In Corso’s case, his rent would have skyrocketed by 250 per cent from $139 a month to about $500 had he taken the full-time job.

“With welfare already taking 50 cents of every dollar it didn’t really seem worth it,” he says.


Short-term welfare changes recommended by Ontario’s Social Assistance Review Advisory Council

Proposed changes not yet implemented

  • Ensure people on welfare with earnings don’t face unreasonable hikes in subsidized rent.
  • Increase asset limits.
  • Extend asset exemptions to RRSPs and tax-free savings accounts.
  • Treat Employment Insurance benefits as earnings for people receiving Ontario Disability Support Program payments.
  • Allow those who have been disqualified from Ontario’s student loan program to receive welfare while attending college or university.
  • Do not treat loans as income.
  • Do not stop welfare payments for dependent children leaving school.
  • Allow single parents to keep partial child support.
  • Increase medical transportation rates.

Proposed changes accepted in March

  • Let friends and family give casual gifts to people on welfare as is currently allowed for disabled people on benefits.
  • Allow those who receive windfalls to remain eligible for welfare.
  • Don’t reduce welfare for those sharing accommodation
  • Change welfare suspension rules for not participating in job search and other requirements.

    < http://www.thestar.com/news/ontario/article/848215–fix-welfare-rules-panel-urges-province >

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