Ontario’s vision for social assistance is encouraging – but the budget tells a different story

Posted on March 30, 2021 in Social Security Policy Context

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Maytree.com – Publications/Opinion
29/03/2021.   Elizabeth McIsaac, Garima Talwar Kapoor

This Maytree opinion is part of our series, “A life with dignity: Towards economic and social rights for all.” Each month, we will explore how our collective choices are bringing us closer to – or keeping us from – what we need for every person in Canada to live with dignity.

Cautious optimism – that’s what we felt when we read Ontario’s recent paper outlining its vision for transforming social assistance. While it does not adopt a human rights approach, which we believe is necessary to build a system that enables people to live with dignity, it does make some important steps in the right direction.

For starters, the vision paper recognizes that financial assistance alone is not enough. It recognizes that people might need support in a variety of areas of their lives, such as housing, child care, or mental health and addiction services. It recognizes that the government should help people to access those services. It recognizes that access to those services need not be limited to people who are receiving social assistance.

These are all important acknowledgements. They are important because they see that people are complex, and that the way to serve that complexity is by using all the parts of a system that impact that person. It is significant that the vision is not built on the idea of “small government” and instead acknowledges the government’s duty to provide services. And ensuring that people can access services even if they are not receiving social assistance is critical—it means that people will not have to descend into the deep poverty that social assistance eligibility rules require before they can get support.

The vision is important. It tells us what the government is thinking.

On the other hand, last week’s provincial budget tells us what the government is prepared to actually do. And that is: not much.

Which is troubling, because overall, the vision the government lays out is encouraging. To succeed, it needs a comprehensive, feasible and fully-resourced implementation plan.

First, the province must invest in the services that will support “life stabilization” and well-being. At current funding levels, many of the services that the government hopes to connect people with are already over-capacity. Caseworkers will be able to add people to housing waiting lists, for example, but won’t be able to get them into an actual home. Without a substantial investment in these services to increase their capacity and quality, very little will change in people’s daily lives.

A plan must also use an equity lens to determine need and measure success. People experience systems differently. For example, while we know that protected paid sick leave benefits all workers, it will have the greatest impact on low-wage workers, who are disproportionately racialized and women.

We will only know where the needs are and if supports are working if we have high quality data to guide us. Data should be collected, analyzed, and published by the provincial government. It should be timely. It should be disaggregated by demographic groups.

The changes that the government’s vision suggest are operationally complex, and the province will need to collaborate on many fronts to make it work. It will need to work constructively with unions to figure out fair and reasonable changes for the staff who administer social assistance. It will need to engage productively with municipalities to negotiate changes to how they deliver social assistance and how the province funds them to do so. Moreover, marshalling all the parts of the system that contribute to a person’s well-being will require collaboration between provincial ministries in a way that is simply not being done right now.

And the government must not forget about the larger systems in our society that shape people’s ability to achieve a decent standard of living. For example, if the government’s goal is to move people from social assistance to employment, it must also look at how to improve working conditions for the types of jobs that are available to people. This includes increasing minimum wage, mandating paid sick leave, and implementing portable health and retirement benefits. When little or no decent work is available, moving from social assistance to employment is a meaningless goal.

Last week’s provincial budget did not include significant funds for housing or other services that contribute to well-being, as its vision suggests. Which means, it does not have a plan.

Nor did the budget include funds to increase social assistance rates. Perhaps this is not surprising – the vision paper is likewise silent on social assistance rates. While the focus on services is welcome, we must not lose sight of rates and the role that income – money – plays in fulfilling the human right to an adequate standard of living. Current rates are woefully inadequate. The last time rates were increased was 2018. As the cost of living has continued to rise, this means that people have, in effect, had their rates cut during this period. To support people to live with dignity, social assistance must provide both sufficient income and access to services.

Ontario has set itself a vision to transform social assistance. But its budget shows us that it does not have a plan to make this vision a reality.

Ontario’s vision for social assistance is encouraging – but the budget tells a different story

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