How government penny-pinching makes life harder for unhoused Ontarians

Posted on March 26, 2024 in Social Security Policy Context

Source: — Authors: , – Opinion/Affordability
Mar 25, 2024.   Written by Alan Broadbent and Elizabeth McIsaac

OPINION: If you lose your home in Ontario, you get less social assistance. The government should fix this rule — now

The mean-spirited, penny-pinching rules of social assistance make life even harder for people who don’t have a home.

In Ontario, if you lose your home, you get less social assistance than someone who has a home. The government cuts your benefits in half.

Why punish people when we can help them get back on their feet?

If it’s simply about saving money, surely the government can find lots of other ways to do that without ruining people’s lives.

Both Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support Program divide benefit payments into two portions: basic needs (which is intended for food, clothing, and other personal items) and shelter allowance. To get the shelter allowance, you have to provide proof that you are paying for housing costs such as rent, mortgage, or utilities. If you can’t show receipts, you can’t get the shelter allowance.

One “rationale” behind the decision is simple: people who are unhoused have no housing costs and therefore don’t need the money. Another is that it would act as a deterrent to people, who would presumably try harder to not become homeless, as if people lose their homes out of mere carelessness.

[  Agenda segment, September 23, 2022: Getting by on social assistance in Ontario:  ]

The decision dates back to the late 1990s, when then-premier Mike Harris presided over devastating cuts to social assistance. Thirty years later, social assistance has not recovered. In fact, it’s gotten worse.  Social-policy expert John Stapleton recently pointed out that when you adjust for inflation, a person on social assistance today receives about $200 lessthan they did during the Harris era. And the government continues to withhold the shelter allowance from people who are unhoused.

Here’s what that looks like in a person’s life: On Ontario Works, a single adult who is unhoused receives $343 per month for basic needs and $0 for shelter. That works out to about $11 per day. That would be laughable if it weren’t so degrading. How could someone get by, let alone get back on their feet, with so little? How could you put together first and last month’s rent or pay at the laundromat to make sure you have clean clothes to look for work? How would you have the energy to do much of anything if you couldn’t afford enough food?

The shelter allowance for a single adult on Ontario Works is $390. This amount has no relationship whatsoever to the actual costs of housing in any city in Ontario today. The same goes for the basic-needs portion. The full amount of social assistance is woefully inadequate. Cutting it in half is inhumane.

[ Agenda segment, February 2, 2024: Managing the affordability crisis:  ]

We’re not the first people to point out this flaw in the system. In 2012, a Commission for the Review of Social Assistance recommended a “standard rate” that would not divide payments into basic needs and shelter portions. That means everyone would receive the full amount, even if they were not paying rent or other traditional housing costs. In 2017, three expert working groups repeated this call in Income Security: A Roadmap for Change. The government can’t pretend that it doesn’t know about this problem.

Fixing this one rule would be a step toward making social assistance more effective in getting people out of poverty. This should be the goal of a modernized social-assistance system.

Social assistance should help people, not make their lives even harder.

Ensuring that every person on social assistance gets the full amount, regardless of their housing status, would make a difference to the growing number of people who don’t have a stable, adequate home. The Ontario government should fix this rule — now.

Alan Broadbent and Elizabeth McIsaac – Alan Broadbent is chairman of Maytree, and Elizabeth McIsaac is president of Maytree.

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