It’s time to build dignity into Ontario social assistance
TheStar.com – opinion/editorialopinion
October 09, 2012. Heather McGregor and Rick Blickstead
For nearly two decades, Ontario has seen the continuous erosion of social assistance benefits and a system focused on surveillance and punishment rather than dignity and support. Our province’s social assistance system fails to provide an economic safety net. It also fails to provide opportunities for all Ontarians to contribute to the long-term prosperity of our province.
People on social assistance are poor. Very poor. Worse yet, the very system that’s supposed to help them get back on their feet actually traps them in a cycle of poverty. This has devastating impacts on individuals and families, especially when people are already vulnerable or marginalized — like immigrants, women, single mothers, people with disabilities, and people from racialized communities (aboriginal or First Peoples as well as peoples of colour).
Poverty also has implications for the quality of life of every Ontarian, because not dealing with poverty creates other expensive problems, like poor health. Poverty costs us all. But we know that when we make the investments and set up the systems that reduce income inequality and provide opportunity, we’re all better off.
We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to take positive action now. TheCommission for the Review of Social Assistance in Ontario, undertaking the first review of the system in 20 years, is expected to report back to the government in mid-October. Getting this right is critical: we can’t wait another 20 years for the system to be fixed. A broad coalition of groups from across the province has set out five key tests to look for in the commission’s report.
• Vision: The social assistance system as it stands doesn’t support the government’s own commitment to poverty reduction. The commission must set out a vision for what social assistance is and what it should be: a system that provides incomes that reflect the real cost of living, promotes dignity, equity, opportunity, and good health for all.
• Dignity: Current social assistance rates are terribly inadequate; a single person on Ontario Works only receives $599 per month. This isn’t enough for anyone to afford rent, healthy food, transportation, new clothes, a phone, or any of the other daily costs of dignified living. Rates should reflect people’s real living needs. Social assistance must connect people to housing, child care, and transportation solutions, and it needs to support people who face systemic barriers to employment, based on factors like race, immigration status, gender, and disability.
• Opportunity: People on social assistance need opportunities that support them into employment and training. Currently, the system pushes people on Ontario Works to take any job, without improving their longer-term economic security. This creates a cycle of transitioning between social assistance and low-paid, insecure work. Or, the system abandons people on ODSP, failing to provide the kinds of specialized employment-related services that people with disabilities require.
A broad range of high-quality employment supports, including post-secondary training and education, are important to help people on social assistance find sustainable employment. Supports should continue once they have transitioned into work to facilitate moving into better and more secure jobs. Workforce development goals improve the quality of work in Ontario. This means not only building the skills of Ontarians, but also fostering good jobs that include benefits and that enable people to live with dignity.
Currently, people on social assistance are penalized for finding part-time work, accepting help from friends and family, sharing accommodation or sharing costs with a spouse. The commission needs to remove these disadvantages, and allow people on social assistance to keep more child support, spousal support, income from work or self-employment and gifts. Forcing people to impoverish themselves only deepens the problem of poverty.
• Putting People First: Fixing social assistance means crafting a system that puts people first. Any changes to the program structure — like merging Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support Program — must be made with the best interests of the clients of these programs in mind, rather than solely from the perspective of finding budgetary savings.
While simplifying the benefit structure is welcome, the commission must recognize that some supplementary benefits will always be necessary to meet unique needs. And the additional costs associated with having a disability must be built into the benefit structure.
Regardless of how programs are structured, the system must guarantee transparency, accountability, and rights of appeal. The commission must also recommend an evaluation system where outcomes of the social assistance system are regularly reported.
• Everyone Better Off: The commission has an opportunity to move Ontario toward the goal of eradicating poverty. As such, the commission’s recommendations must ensure that no one is harmed as a result of reform. But just as important, the reformed social assistance system must ensure that everyone is better off.
We know that having a decent income, a safe and affordable place to live, access to nutritious food, and good living conditions are the foundations of good health. Whether people on social assistance are able to achieve good health and live with dignity will be the ultimate test of social assistance reform.
Heather McGregor is chief executive officer of YWCA Toronto and Rick Blickstead is chief executive officer of the Wellesley Institute. They are writing on behalf of the 25 in 5 Network for Poverty Reduction. For more details on the Five Tests for the Social Assistance Review, seewww.ywcatoronto.org.
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