Ontario welfare reforms roll out this month
TheStar.com – news/GTA – The province’s first steps on the road to welfare reform start in September when new earnings and asset limits kick in.
Sep 02 2013. By: Laurie Monsebraaten Social justice reporter
Linda McNeil’s passion is food.
But the part-time cook works only about 10 hours a month, because for every dollar she earns, she loses 50 cents off her monthly $1,075 Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) cheque.
“It’s really not worth it,” says the 46-year-old self-professed “Jill of all trades.” She was forced onto welfare in 2009 due to a rare auto-immune disease.
Starting this month, however, people on social assistance will be able to keep the first $200 they earn before triggering welfare claw-backs.
The measure, announced in last spring’s provincial budget, is a change NcNeil and anti-poverty advocates say is long overdue.
“I am thrilled. This is excellent,” said McNeil. “Not only will my income improve, it will definitely encourage me to work more, if my body allows.”
The extra money will help her pay medication costs that aren’t covered by her welfare drug card, she said.
An estimated 58,000 people on social assistance who have part-time jobs will benefit immediately from the changes. But the goal is to encourage more of the 660,000 adults on welfare and disability supports to ease into the workforce, said provincial Community and Social Services Minister Ted McMeekin.
“Where people can work or volunteer or earn a little bit, we want to affirm that,” he said in an interview last week.
Increases to asset limits for people on Ontario Works — from $606 to $2,500 for a single person and from $1,043 to $5,000 for a couple — also take effect this month.
It means people applying for welfare will no longer have to drain their bank accounts before becoming eligible for help and those already on welfare will be allowed to save.
People on Ontario Works will also be allowed to accept gifts of up to $6,000 and keep a vehicle worth more than $10,000.
The changes are the first steps in the Wynne government’s efforts to transform Ontario’s $8.3 billion welfare system into a program that helps people escape poverty through employment.
They are based on a blueprint submitted last fall by former NDP cabinet minister Frances Lankin and former Statistics Canada head Munir Sheikh.
The new earnings exemption and asset limits will kick in automatically as people on social assistance report their monthly earnings for September, provincial officials say.
The extra money will show up on their October cheques.
The budget’s 1-per-cent social assistance rate hike takes effect in September for the disabled and in October for people on Ontario Works.
A $14-a-month welfare top-up for single people on Ontario Works, who currently receive the lowest monthly rate of $606, also begins in October. It means they will be eligible to receive as much as $626 a month, a 3-per-cent increase.
But the rate increases aren’t going to everyone.
Advocates have just discovered spouses and children of disabled people on ODSP have been left out.
“The benefit that we pay is intended to pay basic support to the person who is disabled,” McMeekin said in an interview.
The Sheikh-Lankin report noted that spouses and children of people receiving ODSP get more than families on Ontario Works, he explained.
“And so we rightly or wrongly took their advice to try to narrow that gap . . . (and) free up some resources to do other things that the report is calling for,” McMeekin said.
Advocates called it a “sneaky” move that wasn’t properly highlighted in the budget.
“We are shocked,” said Jennefer Laidley of the Income Security Advocacy Centre, a legal aid clinic that serves people on social assistance.
“There has been no public discussion about this discrepancy, which we believe is justifiable,” she said. “These issues should be debated in public before government acts.”
Welfare rates in Ontario have not kept up with inflation and continue to fall well below the province’s poverty line of about $20,100 for a single person, after taxes, said social policy expert John Stapleton.
The new $626 monthly rate for a single person on welfare is still less than the $663 that same person would have received 20 years ago, he said. Inflation has increased 44 per cent since then.
< http://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2013/09/02/ontario_welfare_reforms_roll_out_this_month.html >