Once-in-a-generation chance to modernize welfare lost

Posted on May 9, 2013 in Social Security Debates

TheStar.com – opinion/commentary – Premier Kathleen Wynne wanted to be the ‘social justice premier’ but ended up tinkering with the status quo.
May 06 2013. By: Carol Goar

Ontario’s best hope of creating a modern, humane social assistance system has expired.

Thursday’s provincial budget was its last gasp. Premier Kathleen Wynne wanted to do the right thing. She was prepared to take a political risk for the 850,000 Ontarians struggling to get by on subsistence-level welfare payments. But three months into the job, she realized there was no realistic prospect of “charting a new course on social assistance” as a far-sighted provincial commission proposed. Even the people she aimed to help were balking.

So the premier took the safe, conventional route. She made a couple of minor changes to the existing program. They won’t break the bank or ruffle many feathers. In fact, most Ontarians won’t notice them at all. It was exactly the same strategy her predecessor, Dalton McGuinty, had followed.

The improvements announced by Finance Minister Charles Sousa in his inaugural budget were fine as far as they went. Social assistance recipients with part-time jobs (about 10 per cent) would get to keep more of their earnings and new applicants would get to keep more of their assets (a car, for instance). But for the majority, little would change.

This is the end of the road for anti-poverty activists who fought tenaciously to get the province to overhaul its punitive, rule-bound welfare system. It is a tacit acknowledgement by Wynne that she cannot create the escape route from poverty that she once envisaged. And it is a signal to taxpayers that they can expect to keep pouring billions of dollars into what is essentially a poverty maintenance system.

Five days after the budget, there are no complaints. People living on social assistance are relieved the government decided not to scrap the special diet allowance that a quarter of them now receive. People living on disability support are relieved that Wynne jettisoned the idea of merging Ontario Works (general welfare) and the Ontario Disability Support Program. And deficit hawks are relieved that Sousa didn’t raise welfare rates across the board.

So who really lost?

– The provincial commission that spent two years drafting Brighter Prospects: Transforming Social Assistance , a bold, affordable blueprint to overhaul the system. It turned out to be too bold for the governing Liberals.

– Wynne, who aspired to be Ontario’s “ social justice premier .” She had to settle for tinkering with the status quo.

– Anyone who believed Ontario had a once-in-generation chance to replace its demeaning hierarchy of handouts with a social assistance system designed to help recipients use whatever abilities they have to support themselves, contribute to society and shed the stigma of dependency. Last week’s budget could have been the seminal step in the journey.

– Social assistance recipients themselves — although few recognize it. Wynne was ready to offer them a $100-a-month boost to the lowest welfare rate ($606 per month) plus the two measures in Sousa’s budget. Instead, they lobbied for — and got — a stay of execution for the special diet allowance (which will be whittled back anyway) and a continuation of the two-tier benefit structure put in place by former premier Mike Harris in 1997 so he could slash welfare rates without being accused of punishing the sick and injured.

What this means is a continuation of the 1-per-cent rate increases the Liberals have doled out for a decade — Sousa stuck to that pattern — and incremental rule changes if Wynne stays in power. Should Conservative Leader Tim Hudak become premier, rates would be

The finance minister tried to portray his changes to social assistance as “far-reaching and fundamental.” A more apt description would have been modest and pragmatic.

Hiding her lost hopes, Wynne applauded his budget enthusiastically.

< http://www.thestar.com/opinion/commentary/2013/05/06/onceinageneration_chance_to_modernize_welfare_lost_goar.html >

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