Social assistance reform vital part of poverty reduction strategy – Opinion – Social assistance reform vital part of poverty reduction strategy
February 12, 2009. Sarah Blackstock

Ontario finally has a poverty reduction strategy. It’s about time.

For years, anti-poverty activists have been pleading with government to take poverty seriously. Teachers have talked about how poorly children do in school when they are hungry and distracted. Health practitioners have listed the ways poverty makes people sick and costs the health-care system millions of dollars. Low-income people have insisted that they should not be blamed for their poverty, but rather that the root causes of poverty such as low wages, lack of child care, discrimination and low levels of training and education should be addressed.

Finally, government has started to listen. In December, the McGuinty government released “Breaking the Cycle,” its poverty reduction plan. A critical component of the strategy is a promise to launch a review of social assistance, comprised of the Ontario Disability Support Program and Ontario Works.

Advocates were relieved to hear Ontario Works and the ODSP are going to get some attention. Indeed, it would be strange if they did not because the current social assistance system is at fundamental odds with the goals of poverty reduction. At the heart of the poverty reduction strategy is an acknowledgement that in order to reduce poverty we must: come up with a plan; address the root causes of poverty rather than “blame-the-victim;” and offer people meaningful support and training opportunities.

In stark contrast, the current social assistance system does nothing to reduce poverty. In fact, it contributes to poverty. It was designed to ensure that the fewest possible number of people would have access to Ontario Works and ODSP and that they take the shortest possible route to employment, even when the first available job would virtually guarantee long-term poverty. People involved in Ontario Works often are forced into employment that is so insecure and poorly paid that they perpetually cycle on and off social assistance rather than being propelled out of poverty.

What’s more, the current system is fraught with a range of widely acknowledged “stupid rules” that overwhelm and impoverish people with punishment and disincentives. For example, if a family is having trouble eating properly with their inadequate benefits and decides to accept an invitation to regularly visit a neighbour for Friday night dinner, that dinner may be counted as “income” and deducted from their social assistance cheque. If a single mother finds she can better make ends meet by sharing accommodation with a roommate, the “shelter” portion of her social assistance benefit is reduced.

A social assistance review is essential to the success of Ontario’s poverty reduction strategy. However, we must not simply tinker with the system and its “stupid rules.” The problem is not a few rules that create barriers to escaping poverty. The rules are reflective of how the program was designed to operate and indicative of how inconsistent the philosophy of the current social assistance system is with the goal of poverty reduction. The review must have a broad scope so that we can rebuild a social assistance system that contributes to poverty reduction. A broad social assistance review offers us the opportunity to reimagine and redesign the system.

Why is a broad review of social assistance so critical to poverty reduction in Ontario? There are 725,000 adults and children on social assistance. These people are trapped in poverty by the failures of a social assistance system that provides virtually no support to recipients who are trying to move out of poverty. Right behind those 725,000 are people losing their jobs in this economic crisis who do not qualify for employment insurance and who will be forced to use up all their savings and any RRSPs before receiving any income support from the Ontario government. If we do not engage in a serious review of social assistance, hundreds of thousands of people will be left in poverty and many more will follow.

Social assistance is a vital part of a healthy, humane society. The social assistance review is an excellent opportunity to re-establish that the primary goal of social assistance is to assist people so that their poverty – and our collective poverty – is reduced. A broad review that examines how benefits can be best designed and delivered, how adequate financial support can be ensured, how support and meaningful training opportunities can be most effectively offered and how people can be treated with dignity is essential to the goal of poverty reduction.

The announcement of the poverty reduction strategy marked a bold step. For the first time in a very long time, we are taking poverty seriously. We are beginning to examine poverty by relying on evidence, rather than stereotypes and cheap politics. We are agreeing to a long-term plan. We are agreeing that we can do better as a society.

However, the truth is that social assistance poses a serious problem. After years of political and public bashing of the social assistance system and those who rely on it, the program is both poorly understood and deeply disliked, even by those who rely on it. For these reasons, it will take strong political will to do what is right and essential. Without a broad, bold review of social assistance, Ontario’s poverty reduction strategy will be severely diminished; the political will and courage must be found.

Sarah Blackstock is the research and policy analyst at the Income Security Advocacy Centre.

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