Open Letter urges Ontario to boost support for people on social assistance

Posted on April 8, 2020 in Social Security Debates

Source: — Authors: – GTA

A coalition of more than 130 health care workers, community agencies and Ontarians living in poverty is urging Queen’s Park to increase benefits immediately to almost one million residents on social assistance struggling to survive during the COVID-19 crisis.

“While federal and provincial governments have taken positive steps to provide additional income support during the pandemic, many low-income Ontarians are still falling through the cracks,” the coalition says in an open letter to Children, Community and Social Services Minister Todd Smith on Tuesday.

“If we are to weather this storm together, we must ensure that nobody in Ontario is left behind,” adds the letter signed by social service agencies and groups representing people on social assistance and also physicians, nurses, food banks, community legal clinics and faith leaders.

The coalition says the province’s one-time emergency benefits of $100 per individual and $200 for families is “too uncertain, hard-to-access, and limited to be of any meaningful benefit to low-income Ontarians.”

Raising social assistance rates for everyone would be a “broad-reaching, transparent, and long-term solution,” it argues.

The province should also allow people on social assistance with part-time jobs keep more of what they earn and not claw back the federal Canada Emergency Relief Benefit (CERB) from those who are out of work due to the pandemic, the coalition says.

The CERB, announced by Ottawa on March 26, provides monthly payments of $2,000 for four months to Canadians with at least $5,000 in earnings over the past 12 months who have lost their job as a result of the health crisis.

Open Letter from more than 130 community organizations

As many as 75,000 people on social assistance would likely qualify, said Toronto social policy expert John Stapleton. But if Ontario claws back the CERB dollar-for-dollar, as it does for Employment Insurance (EI) and CPP-disability benefits, those vulnerable workers would get nothing, he said.

The B.C. government on April 2 exempted EI and CERB from social assistance clawbacks while that province struggles to support residents during the pandemic.

B.C. is also providing an automatic emergency benefit of $300 a month to all residents on social assistance for the next three months.

A spokesperson for Smith said the province is still “considering the impacts (the CERB) may have on our province’s social assistance clients.”

As for the call for a general rate increase during the health crisis, spokesperson Palmer Lockridge said the province is “making discretionary benefits more accessible for those who need increased support for extraordinary costs, while ensuring no disruption to current assistance.”

Discretionary benefits are determined locally for one-time exceptional costs based on need, he said in an email.

“This funding is available until the end of April 2020 and can be used to meet a broad range of needs, for example: cleaning supplies, transportation, food or clothing that individuals and families may require due to COVID-19,” Lockridge added.

Social assistance benefits in the province fall between 40 per cent and 60 per cent below the poverty line, with a single person on Ontario Works (OW) receiving monthly maximums of just $733, while someone living on Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) benefits gets up to $1,169.

“These rates are far below the poverty line of $1,767 per month, which contributes to food insecurity, poor health and the current homelessness crisis — a recipe for disaster during COVID-19,” the open letter says.

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