It’s time to build dignity into Ontario social assistance

Posted on October 10, 2012 in Social Security Debates

Source: — Authors: , – opinion/editorialopinion
October 09, 2012.   Heather McGregor and Rick Blickstead

For nearly two decades, Ontario has seen the continuous erosion of social assistance benefits and a system focused on surveillance and punishment rather than dignity and support. Our province’s social assistance system fails to provide an economic safety net. It also fails to provide opportunities for all Ontarians to contribute to the long-term prosperity of our province.

People on social assistance are poor. Very poor. Worse yet, the very system that’s supposed to help them get back on their feet actually traps them in a cycle of poverty. This has devastating impacts on individuals and families, especially when people are already vulnerable or marginalized — like immigrants, women, single mothers, people with disabilities, and people from racialized communities (aboriginal or First Peoples as well as peoples of colour).

Poverty also has implications for the quality of life of every Ontarian, because not dealing with poverty creates other expensive problems, like poor health. Poverty costs us all. But we know that when we make the investments and set up the systems that reduce income inequality and provide opportunity, we’re all better off.

We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to take positive action now. TheCommission for the Review of Social Assistance in Ontario, undertaking the first review of the system in 20 years, is expected to report back to the government in mid-October. Getting this right is critical: we can’t wait another 20 years for the system to be fixed. A broad coalition of groups from across the province has set out five key tests to look for in the commission’s report.

 Vision: The social assistance system as it stands doesn’t support the government’s own commitment to poverty reduction. The commission must set out a vision for what social assistance is and what it should be: a system that provides incomes that reflect the real cost of living, promotes dignity, equity, opportunity, and good health for all.

 Dignity: Current social assistance rates are terribly inadequate; a single person on Ontario Works only receives $599 per month. This isn’t enough for anyone to afford rent, healthy food, transportation, new clothes, a phone, or any of the other daily costs of dignified living. Rates should reflect people’s real living needs. Social assistance must connect people to housing, child care, and transportation solutions, and it needs to support people who face systemic barriers to employment, based on factors like race, immigration status, gender, and disability.

 Opportunity: People on social assistance need opportunities that support them into employment and training. Currently, the system pushes people on Ontario Works to take any job, without improving their longer-term economic security. This creates a cycle of transitioning between social assistance and low-paid, insecure work. Or, the system abandons people on ODSP, failing to provide the kinds of specialized employment-related services that people with disabilities require.

A broad range of high-quality employment supports, including post-secondary training and education, are important to help people on social assistance find sustainable employment. Supports should continue once they have transitioned into work to facilitate moving into better and more secure jobs. Workforce development goals improve the quality of work in Ontario. This means not only building the skills of Ontarians, but also fostering good jobs that include benefits and that enable people to live with dignity.

Currently, people on social assistance are penalized for finding part-time work, accepting help from friends and family, sharing accommodation or sharing costs with a spouse. The commission needs to remove these disadvantages, and allow people on social assistance to keep more child support, spousal support, income from work or self-employment and gifts. Forcing people to impoverish themselves only deepens the problem of poverty.

 Putting People First: Fixing social assistance means crafting a system that puts people first. Any changes to the program structure — like merging Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support Program — must be made with the best interests of the clients of these programs in mind, rather than solely from the perspective of finding budgetary savings.

While simplifying the benefit structure is welcome, the commission must recognize that some supplementary benefits will always be necessary to meet unique needs. And the additional costs associated with having a disability must be built into the benefit structure.

Regardless of how programs are structured, the system must guarantee transparency, accountability, and rights of appeal. The commission must also recommend an evaluation system where outcomes of the social assistance system are regularly reported.

 Everyone Better Off: The commission has an opportunity to move Ontario toward the goal of eradicating poverty. As such, the commission’s recommendations must ensure that no one is harmed as a result of reform. But just as important, the reformed social assistance system must ensure that everyone is better off.

We know that having a decent income, a safe and affordable place to live, access to nutritious food, and good living conditions are the foundations of good health. Whether people on social assistance are able to achieve good health and live with dignity will be the ultimate test of social assistance reform.

Heather McGregor is chief executive officer of YWCA Toronto and Rick Blickstead is chief executive officer of the Wellesley Institute. They are writing on behalf of the 25 in 5 Network for Poverty Reduction. For more details on the Five Tests for the Social Assistance Review,

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6 Responses to “It’s time to build dignity into Ontario social assistance”

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  3. Kathleen Vachon says:

    When attempting to receive social assistance you are made to feel as if you’ve failed at life. It’s almost as though one has to beg to get any sort of income support. Just seeing the word dignity in the same sentence as social assistance is mind-boggling. Having been in receipt of social assistance myself, I know just how undignified it can be. I am pleased to hear that our province is performing the much needed task of examining and evaluating the current state of social assistance. I am trying to be optimistic about the outcome of this review.

    The article discusses the need to allow people on social assistance to keep more of the child support, part time wages and other monetary items they obtain. While receiving social assistance over the summer the amount of my child tax benefit decreased, and when I told my caseworker I would now be living with $200 dollars less a month, all she did was shrug. I made numerous requests to have my assistance increased to reflect this change, to no avail. As soon as I received my acceptance letter from school I was completely cut off Ontario Works. I also attempted to acquire any form of financial aid for school and other than covering the cost of my application they would not spare a dime. They informed me that “OSAP will cover it.” Has our government forgotten that OSAP is a loan and is being added to my current debt? It is also based on our previous year’s taxes, and as such I was considered to be a middle-income family, when I’ve made less than a third of my 2011 annual income this year. In order to give people the necessary tools and knowledge to get off the system and provide for themselves, we must first support the system itself.

  4. Kirsten Gordon says:

    In Ontario Social Assistance has most definitely been dissipating. To add to this already upsetting reality, the Ontario government has proposed to make cuts to the Start-Up Benefit come January 2013. When the province cuts funding for programs, such as Social Assistance, the entire province feels the affects. This may mean that there are more homeless people on the streets, or longer wait times at hospitals due to inadequate health. Perhaps some members of society do take advantage of the system, and in turn ruin it for those individuals that do need the assistance. Social Assistance should be used towards individuals that have no source of income due to limitations such as physical impairment for example. There are individuals that scam the system and use the assistance because they are too lazy to work. This costs the government monetary funds that did not need to be spent and ruins the system for every member of society that truly needs the assistance to make a decent living.

    Social Assistance being under review is a huge step forward for the Ontario government. An overview of the entire systems needs to be looked at and the flaws need to be straightened out. However, as Mullaly stated, “…society based on competitive capitalism cannot provide universal security and that state has a duty to fill this void” (p 9). In regards to Social Assistance being under review, the commissioners stated on their website that the review date has been pushed back from mid October to “a new date in the near future”. This understandably frustrated me as I feel that the people that require Social Assistance are not being respected and their needs are not being appropriately taken into consideration. I view pushing back the date as to when Social Assistance will be revised as a mockery to the individuals who require the assistance. Action needs to be taken now, not in the near future. These members of society cannot wait any longer for Social Assistance to be revised; their families could very well be suffering, because they cannot afford basic necessities. As the news paper article states, Ontario needs to work together to bring vision, dignity, and opportunity back in the system. With respect to Mulally, Canada is a capitalistic country, however, if Ontario and the government work together (as a state), progress can be made as to where funding needs to be allocated, and just how many people need the support of Social Assistance.

  5. Kat says:

    Under the “Dignity” heading, it’d be worth mentioning the assessment process for people applying for OW. I distinctly remember applicants being asked to state the amount of change they have in their pockets.
    There’s also no mention of people who have been incarcerated and all the barriers they face when looking for employment, if they want budgetary savings I’d say tackling that population is essential.


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