Good news on the poverty front in Kathleen Wynne’s first budget
TheStar.com – news/Queen’sPark – Buried within the Liberals’ budget are several surprisingly robust improvements to Ontario’s current welfare mess.
May 09 2013. By: Martin Regg Cohn, Provincial Politics
Welfare reform is never a vote winner in Ontario.
Perhaps that’s why the NDP raised it only in passing during pre-budget negotiations. Nor is the Liberal government trumpeting its latest social service reforms.
But, buried within the budget are several surprisingly robust improvements to Ontario’s current welfare mess. And behind the scenes, the Liberals are looking at an even more ambitious second phase of reforms that could be rolled out within the next year: indexing the minimum wage, hiking welfare payments by an additional $100, and indexing those payments.
Can Ted McMeekin, Ontario’s left-leaning social services minister, forge a political alliance with cabinet colleagues and social activists to bankroll much bigger increases to welfare, while redesigning the system? And is Premier Kathleen Wynne willing to risk yet more political capital on welfare reform, when she is already going out on a limb with transit road tolls?
After all, the poorest of the poor don’t vote in large numbers. There is, quite simply, no influential anti-poverty constituency that is bankable at the ballot box.
But financial analysts frown upon welfare increases that drag down the bottom line, threatening Ontario’s credit rating. And the more Wynne talks up welfare, the more she plays into Tory caricatures of her as a left-leaning premier.
Yet for all those obstacles, there was surprisingly good news on the poverty front in Wynne’s first budget. The announcements — modest increases and long-overdue rule changes — go well beyond NDP (and Tory) requests for welfare reform, and have elicited public praise from social service watchdog groups.
There is wide recognition that these reforms are only a first step — the low-hanging fruit. But after digesting these reforms, many social policy analysts are stressing that the harvest is still highly desirable.
The real challenge is how to move up the food chain to sow more ambitious reforms that breathe new life into an ossified welfare system without unduly upsetting the apple cart. As much as everyone agrees that the system is anachronistic, getting anyone to agree on how to streamline it is politically daunting.
Here, the budget contained a vital clue signalling that the Liberals have not given up on the tougher stuff ahead: “These initial changes will also set the stage for long-term transformation of social assistance . . . (that) will take time to achieve. The government will start discussions with recipients . . . and work through the choices required for transformation.”
For two years, former NDP cabinet minister Frances Lankin teamed up with former Statistics Canada chief Munir Sheikh to write a landmark report on updating social services in Ontario. Released last fall, it provides a blueprint for quick, short-term changes that most people agree on, followed by more complex reforms over the long term.
In this austerity budget, “A very high priority was placed on taking first steps,” Lankin told me. “It’s a journey, not a one-shot announcement.”
She has that on good authority, citing conversations with Wynne, McMeekin and Finance Minister Charles Sousa, all of whom delivered “very, very clear assurances that they’re in this for the long haul. They want to proceed.”
That news won’t be universally welcomed. In a recent interview, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath told me she has grave reservations about the Lankin report’s recommendations to recombine general welfare (Ontario Works) and the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP).
The Lankin plan is an attempt to undo the damage of the Tories under Mike Harris, who segregated the two groups — “good” disabled people who could never really work, and “bad” welfare folks who should just get a job. But all sides realize they must proceed with caution.
McMeekin says a “Wynne-win-win” could come from careful tradeoffs.
“We are moving quickly — some say too quickly,” McMeekin said in an interview Wednesday. “The premier supports me on this.”
He has consulted with 63 social groups, a panel of 16 advisers, and a cabinet committee of five ministers: “But you’ve got to do reform in a phased way, with conversations about trade-offs. You can’t have losers.”
So far, McMeekin has won the early cabinet battles, backed by Wynne: raising the amount that welfare recipients can earn before having the money clawed back (to $200); raising the “asset limits” that poor people can retain, and raising rates across the board.
The question now is whether the low-hanging fruit will seed future reforms.
< http://www.thestar.com/news/queenspark/2013/05/09/good_news_on_the_poverty_front_in_kathleen_wynnes_first_budget_cohn.html >