How Dalton McGuinty can undo the welfare legacy of Mike Harris
TheStar.com – news/canada/politics
October 11, 2012. By Martin Regg Cohn, Queen’s Park Columnist
Mike Harris quit as premier a decade ago, but he never really left the lives of welfare recipients: Social assistance today is more or less unchanged since the Harris Tories targeted their cheques for downsizing and downloading in the mid-1990s.
Next week, welfare gets a rethink. It’s the culmination of an ambitious poverty reduction strategy that began four years ago, and everything is on the table — except for more money.
Premier Dalton McGuinty made poverty reduction a centrepiece of hisgovernment in good times when it seemed affordable. But in tough times, the price of doing nothing is equally unaffordable — because welfare costs keep going up.
With his credibility on the line, how does McGuinty undo the Harris legacy all these years later?
The answers are now on the premier’s desk. Embedded in a 200-plus page report to be released later next week, they come from a commission helmed by two influential figures whose credibility makes them hard to ignore.
Frances Lankin is the intensely political and persuasive former NDP cabinet minister who later headed Toronto’s United Way, where she married anti-poverty work with corporate fundraising. She understands the art of the possible.
Munir Sheikh is the utterly apolitical federal bureaucrat who famously resigned as head of Statistics Canada over the Harper government’s meddling in the mandatory census. He understands numbers.
Together, they have produced more than 100 recommendations to shake up an ossified system while also goring sacred cows cherished by welfare advocates. Anti-poverty groups and the government itself will find some of their ideas hard to swallow.
Ontario’s welfare caseload of nearly 600,000 is climbing inexorably by about 5 per cent a year. If that were a merely temporary spike, Queen’s Park could raise taxes or borrow money as it once did.
But there will be no massive cash infusion from Ontario’s minority Liberal government amid economic turbulence. Its political and fiscal margin of manoeuvre is minimal.
There could well be some quick (but not all that fast) fixes — notably the need to rejig “asset limits” that have the pernicious effect of impoverishing people who fall on hard times. The rules often force them to draw down most of their savings before they qualify for welfare — which not only seems inhumane but counterproductive, because it prevents people from getting back on their feet with a decent financial cushion.
Equally, the government will be urged to raise earning exemptions higher, to avoid the clawbacks that discourage people from returning to work only to lose the benefits of subsidized housing, medicine and child care.
Beyond these direct remedies, the report will focus more on a long-term vision to replace the province’s hodgepodge of conflicting programs and counterproductive rules with a smarter, more seamless system.
For too long, politicians have pigeonholed welfare recipients into two types: the “good poor” who were helpless (children and the disabled), versus the “bad poor” who were hapless (able-bodied men and women). After all these years, the lesson to be learned on welfare is that the origins of these cases matter less than the outcomes.
Yes, the disabled clearly deserve assistance from the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP), but they also cry out for opportunities to be treated (if necessary), trained (as needed), and employed (if possible) — rather than deemed forever helpless.
True, able-bodied recipients of Ontario Works welfare money are typically blamed for their fate, but often they merely have the misfortune to fall through the cracks of the new economy and an outdated Employment Insurance system that makes it harder than ever for Ontario workers to qualify for benefits.
Why not merge these two unwieldy Harris-era programs (ODSP and Ontario Works) into a single, more coherent system that doesn’t discriminate between “good poor” and “bad?” This is the kind of bold idea that scares some people — advocates and bureaucrats alike — because $8-billion programs aren’t built or redesigned in a day.
Some ideas need not cost money. Instead of pitting social service staff against recipients with punitive surveillance, why not emphasize retraining and referrals? The current culture stresses catching people out rather than helping them out with housing, health or addiction challenges that keep them on welfare.
The report argues that not all solutions can be found within the system, because some barriers to getting off welfare are unrelated to Ontario’s social assistance programs. About 75 per cent of Ontario Works recipients come off welfare within a year, but half of them are back on the rolls again 12 months later. Cycling back and forth is pointless, especially in an economy where short-term jobs and contracts are the new normal. Will Ottawa finally heed the cry to fix EI?
Some barriers are mental. The research shows 60 per cent of disability recipients suffer from some form of mental illness, as opposed to conventional physical handicaps. Some may need help with addiction or other health needs before they can become employable.
But some barriers are corporate. If and when they are able to work, will anyone hire them? We need to think beyond the supply side (preparing the disabled for work if they are able) to the demand side (conditioning employers to open their doors).
This is where Lankin’s background as a United Way emissary and longtime progressive — who wheedled her way into boardrooms to raise money and smooth talk executives — makes her want to champion hiring the disabled. Why not reach out to business to do its bit?
Unlike the last major change to social assistance — the Ontario Child Benefit, which was bankrolled with a $1 billion budget commitment in 2009 and took two years to design — there is no new money to grease the wheels of reform. And it will take time.
A government official describes the report as more of a 10-year vision than a two-year action plan. But there must be “offsets” that produce savings to bankroll any changes.
There is also a growing recognition that, all these years after Harris squeezed welfare, the best way to get more out of it — and secure public support — is not necessarily with more money or less, but sounder investments. If Lankin and Sheikh can make the case to McGuinty, and in turn to the general public, that welfare money is being used more wisely and humanely — and less wastefully — their redesign will pay dividends at all levels.
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