Hot! Time to jettison outdated welfare system and start afresh

TheStar.com – opinion/editorialopinion
November 01, 2012.   By Carol Goar, Editorial Board

It took Frances Lankin and Munir Sheikh two years to untangle the 800 rules, 240 benefit rates, add-ons, updates and patch-ups that have turned Ontario’s welfare system into an incomprehensible mess.

It took the Ontario government 15 years — and three premiers — to turn a once-compassionate income support into an $8.3-billion dead weight.

It took provincial bureaucrats countless person-hours to draft and implement the onslaught of regulations, penalties and procedures that have stripped caseworkers of their humanity and stigmatized their clients.

Surely Ontario’s political leaders can find more than a few minutes to address the forward-looking plan proposed by two of the most progressive pragmatists in the country. But not one of them has risen to the challenge.

Premier Dalton McGuinty, who commissioned the report, has said nothing.

Neither Conservative Leader Tim Hudak nor New Democratic Party Leader Andrea Horwath has made any substantive comment.

Social Services Minister John Milloy has undertaken to “consult our partners — both inside and outside of government — to discuss the implications of system transformation and begin creating a responsible road map.” (That’s what the commissioners just did.)

The media, sensing the mood at Queen’s Park, gave the 132-page report a cursory look and declared it well intentioned, but too ambitious for a deficit-burdened, politically unstable province.

That’s one way of looking at it. There is another way.

Ontario has a rare chance to replace an oppressive, needlessly complex social assistance program with a simpler, fairer system.

Social assistance has become the default program for Ontarians with mental disorders, single parents who can’t afford child care, victims of domestic violence, high-school dropouts, inmates who’ve served their time and kids who think crime is the only way out of poverty. It provides them with a subsistence-level income and little hope of anything better. No amount of tinkering will change that.

What Lankin, a former CEO of United Way Toronto, and Sheikh, former chief statistician of Canada, propose is a 10-year plan to replace the province’s overloaded, barnacle-encrusted safety net with a program designed to get people the right kind of help — mental health and addiction services, affordable housing, accessible child care, post-prison reintegration programs and practical employment training — to become as self-sufficient as they can. Many social assistance recipients are employable and want to work. All can live purposeful lives.

The two social assistance commissioners may not have every detail right. But their road map leads in the right direction.

The obstacles are not insurmountable. The provincial deficit is shrinking faster than anticipated. The economy is still growing, albeit modestly. Ontario’s short-term political outlook is uncertain, but not paralyzing.

The price — starting at $340 million a year and dropping as people leave social assistance — is not prohibitive. It is the equivalent of one day’s worth of provincial government spending.

The public is not dead set against welfare reform — just anxious and disengaged.

The principal thing holding Ontario back is an absence of political courage.

Suppose McGuinty had welcomed the report with enthusiasm and made it a personal priority to persuade his Liberal colleagues to incorporate it into their leadership platforms and the party’s next election platform.

Suppose Horwath, whose party once stood up for the poor, had embraced the work of fellow New Democrat Frances Lankin and made it part of her vision for Ontario.

Suppose someone in the Conservative caucus had dared say to Hudak: “This makes economic sense. Denigrating the poor is yesterday’s politics.”

Suppose one of the bankers or business leaders who endorsed Brighter Prospects had gone a step further and publicly urged the province’s political leaders to wake up and recognize that Ontario needs the skills and abilities of all its citizens to cope with the demographic challenges it faces.

Opinion polls will never say it’s safe to take a political risk. Circumstances will never be ideal. The timing will never be right.

So here is the choice: Tinker perennially or discard the accumulated baggage and start afresh.

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1 Comment

  1. I do not understand why it is perceived to take so much “political courage” to address the issue of social security reform in this province. It seems to me that after a report such as this is released politicians should be chomping at the bit to get a word in. It should be recognized by politicians that the “anxious and disengaged” populace is only that way because of the absence of interesting discourse on the issue from our leaders. If politicians are truly just looking to attain votes in the next election, they need to set a strong and clear policy on issues such as this. I think that this is a strong report that could have far reaching benefits for Ontarians and I wish that it’s recommendations would be implemented. With this view, who do I vote for to see my wish realized? Your guess is as good as mine because over a week after the report has been released we have seen no comment from our leaders.

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