Life stabilization on a welfare income is impossible

Posted on June 24, 2021 in Social Security Policy Context

Source: — Authors: , – Opinion/Contributors
June 23, 2021.   By John Stapleton, Bee Lee Soh, Contributors

To grasp the dire state of social assistance rates in Ontario, just look at the numbers.

The current Ontario Works single rate is $733 a month. Adjusted for inflation, this very low amount is $103 a month below the level that Mike Harris established in 1995 when he cut social assistance rates by 21.6 per cent. Even with tax credits, this amount now translates to less than $10,000 a year at a time when the poverty line for a single person is nudging $25,000 a year.

Now consider full time-full year minimum wages. They stand at $27,800 a year. The financial incentive for recipients to take those jobs is palpable. For the 117,000 single people now receiving welfare in Ontario, the reality is that they can’t get those jobs.

The life of a single welfare recipient in Toronto is that of a hunter-gather. The lowest cost of a room shared with at least two other people is $450 a month leaving just $283 for everything else.

This can often mean scrounging for food.

If they buy a transit pass for $156, they don’t have enough money left to eat; period. There is no money for a phone or a data plan. They are forced to travel like urban nomads from soup kitchen to food bank — spring, summer, fall and winter.

This is no way to live.

Since the Harris government came to power in 1995, no Progressive Conservative government has raised social assistance rates. The last time a PC government raised social assistance was 1985 when Bill Davis was in power. He increased benefits by 6 per cent.

In fact, during their 11 years in power since 1985, the PCs have made quick work of eroding already very low rates even more. In 1995, they reduced rates by 21.6 per cent and then lowered rates by a further 1.5 per cent in 2018. While in office from 1995 to 2003, payments lost 16.9 per cent to inflation and they have now lost another 5.7 per cent since 2018.

That’s a total of 45.7 per cent in rate reductions either by cuts or erosion to inflation that this government is responsible for.

But now Ontario has released Recovery & Renewal: Ontario’s Vision for Social Assistance Transformation, which includes a number of changes to Ontario Works (OW) and Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP). Their stated goal is to “modernize the system so those who rely on social assistance can get the help they need.”

To start the transformation, the government put forward Bill 276, which sets out the province’s vision for social assistance. Bill 276 seeks to create “life stabilization” mechanisms like housing, child care, and mental health supports.

However, people’s lives cannot be stabilized without increasing social assistance rates. While they slowly starve, recipients will be required to “participate in prescribed employment and life stabilization assistance activities.”

But there is no clear plan to show how local service delivery agents will be able to co-ordinate life stabilization services that are notoriously in short supply, such as affordable housing, counselling and mental health services.

And adding names to years-long waiting lists does not stabilize anything. In fact, it can have the opposite effect.

Once the planned transformation is complete, recipients will access income supports through the province, life stabilization supports through municipalities and employment supports through a new provider that could be a private corporation as is currently being piloted in Peel region.

The government proposes a centralized intake system in which certain case files will be automated and those with more complex eligibility will be referred to local offices for assessment. This transformation will increasingly rely on the use of digital services that Ontario Works recipients simply cannot afford. This will lead to significant hardship as many rural communities lack adequate broadband coverage, while 52 per cent of low-income households in Toronto lack adequate internet access.

Social assistance rates have never been adjusted to account for the significant new expense of digital access. Without first correcting this technological deficit, some clients will lose access to essential benefits and services that will place their financial security, health and well-being at risk.

As minister, Todd Smith backtracked on the full slate of his predecessor Lisa Macleod’s cutbacks. His successor, Merrilee Fullerton inherits a ministry that purports to stabilize lives without even the most minimal resources needed to accomplish the task.

Advocates now look forward to how she will pull that rabbit out of her new hat.

John Stapleton is Innovations Fellow at the Metcalf Foundation and a former social assistance policy analyst with the Ontario government. Bee Lee Soh is an activist and currently a recipient of Ontario Works.


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