Ontario welfare reform plan is on the right track
October 24, 2012.
Fighting poverty has slipped far down the public agenda. Even in a province that still boasts an official poverty reduction plan, it has become the issue that dares not speak its name. With public finances squeezed and the middle class worried about just clinging on, the political class would rather ignore it.
Now Ontario has been presented with an ambitious, far-reaching plan to modernize our $8.3-billion welfare system. Commissioners Frances Lankin and Munir Sheikh propose “transformational change” to make the system simpler, more effective at getting people back into the workforce, and accountable to the public. It will be a tough sell, especially with the provincial government on hold for months, but they’re on the right track.
Lankin and Sheikh make a powerful case that the existing system doesn’t accomplish either of its goals – making sure the poorest Ontarians have a decent minimum income, and helping those who can work start supporting themselves as quickly as possible. Even those inclined to blame people on welfare for their own misfortune should agree that if we’re going to spend billions, let’s make sure it’s for something productive.
Right now Ontario has two major programs – Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support Program – that together support 892,000 people. The plans have more than 240 benefit rates and hundreds of complex rules. Instead of figuring out how to get recipients back into paid work, caseworkers spend as much as 70 per cent of their time just mastering the ever-changing regulations. This makes no sense.
Lankin and Sheikh propose merging the two programs into one, cutting the rules by at least half and putting much more focus on helping people support themselves “to the maximum of their abilities.” The idea is, among other things, to erase the distinction between the so-called deserving poor (children and the disabled) and the rest (able-bodied adults on welfare).
Disabled people, in particular, are understandably worried they may lose out if their separate support system is combined with a welfare system that has lower basic benefit rates. Any government that implements these reforms must make sure that the disabled – the most vulnerable of all – don’t come out on the short end. And disabled people should embrace greater opportunities for training and employment, as long as the changes don’t penalize them.
In the short run, people on welfare face more pressing problems than an eventual restructuring of a vast bureaucracy. Ever since the Harris government slashed benefits back in the 1990s, they’ve been subsisting on shamefully small amounts. For a single able-bodied person it’s just $599 a month now – 66 per cent below the poverty line. Try making that stretch in an expensive city like Toronto.
Lankin and Sheikh call for raising that immediately by $100 a month, and letting welfare recipients earn another $200 a month without having it clawed back. The bill for this, they calculate, would net out at $340 million a year.
That’s a lot of money at a time when Ontario’s treasury is bare. But consider this: it would boost the basic welfare rate to just a dollar a day above what it was way back in 1995 – and that doesn’t even account for inflation.
Politicians will never rush to confront welfare’s ills – and the timing now is worse than most, with a shuttered legislature and finances in crisis. But a new government will eventually have to tackle these problems, and this week’s blueprint for change provides an excellent place to start.
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