Frances Lankin and Munir Sheikh give Ontario an affordable plan to modernize social assistance

Posted on October 31, 2012 in Social Security Policy Context

Source: — Authors: – opinion/editorialopinion
October 30, 2012.   By Carol Goar, Editorial Board

No government is ever likely to get a welfare blueprint as clear, comprehensive, far-sighted and affordable as the plan Frances Lankin andMunir Sheikh unveiled last week.

Not only did the two commissioners — a social service leader and an accomplished economist — come up with a way to transform Ontario’s social assistance system from an $8.3-billion program that perpetuates poverty into an $8.6-billion strategy that reduces it; they won endorsements from business leaders, health professionals, community activists and social analysts.

That is a monumental achievement — but not enough to guarantee its success.

Four daunting hurdles stand in the way:

• People with disabilities want nothing to do with Brighter Prospects. It would lump them together with other recipients of social assistance.

• The plan is sharply at odds with the deficit-cutting imperative that grips all parties at Queen’s Park. It calls for a 0.3-per-cent increase in provincial spending.

• Its timing could scarcely be worse. Premier Dalton McGuinty, who commissioned the report, will be gone in three months. His putative successors are too consumed with politics to focus on modernizing welfare.

• And most Ontarians don’t understand or care about social assistance.

If anyone can convince disability support recipients their lives would improve in a system that “supports all recipients to move into employment to the maximum of their abilities,” it is Lankin, who headed the country’s largest and most successful charity, United Way Toronto, for 10 years.

But the signs aren’t promising. Within minutes of the report’s publication,advocates for people with mental and physical disabilities denounced the plan as regressive, ill-conceived and threatening.

If anyone can persuade policy-makers that $340 million is a reasonable short-term investment for a lasting reduction in Ontario’s welfare rolls, it is Sheikh, former chief statistician of Canada.

But the odds are extremely long. None of Ontario’s political leaders is open to new public spending.

Despite these impediments, the report contains at least a dozen proposals that could be implemented right now:

• Simplify the system. There is no conceivable reason to have 240 benefit rates and 800-plus rules. Caseworkers can’t keep track of them; recipients violate rules they didn’t know existed.

• Raise the lowest benefit rate by $100. No one can live on $599 a month.

• Deliver welfare and disability support — the two streams of social assistance — out of one network of local offices, saving millions of dollars.

• End the widely abused special diet allowance, freeing up $230 million. People who need nutrients for medical reasons would be transferred to the care of the Ministry of Health.

• Allow people moving from welfare to work to keep the first $200 per month of what they earn. The province now reduces their support by 50 cents for every dollar they make, leaving many worse off when they’ve paid for transport, apparel and meals away from home.

• Stop forcing people applying for welfare to spend their savings and liquidate their possessions. Allow them to keep $6,000 as a hedge against adversity.

• Help any social assistance recipient — with or without disabilities — who wants to work. (Most do.)

• Assist employers willing to hire social assistance recipients to accommodate them and provide job-specific training.

• Make sure the parts of Ontario’s disjointed social service system — child care, housing, mental health and addiction treatment — support people striving to get off social assistance.

• Turn the difference between welfare and disability support (currently $465 a month for an individual) into a stand-alone disability supplement, as a first step to merging the two programs.

• Appoint a Provincial Commissioner for Social Assistance so everyone knows who’s in charge.

• Publish annual progress reports as part of the province’s poverty reduction strategy.

Most expert panels, commissions and advisory bodies are adamant that policy-makers should not cherry-pick from their reports. Lankin and Sheikh encourage it. They know everything can’t be done at once. They want governments to take the easiest steps first.

Their ultimate goal is to get rid of Ontario’s confusing, punitive social assistance system. But their immediate aim is to give people trapped in misery a taste of hope.

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