The perverse logic of social assistance

Posted on March 4, 2024 in Social Security Debates

Source: — Authors: , – Publications
February 27, 2024.   Alan Broadbent, Elizabeth McIsaac

You would be forgiven for thinking that social assistance was designed to punish people who are poor.

For example, if you lose your home in Ontario, you get less social assistance than someone who has a home. The government cuts your benefits in half.

How does it make sense to take support away from someone at a time when they need morehelp?

The “rationale” behind the decision is simple: people who are unhoused have no housing costs, therefore they don’t need the money.

This perverse logic runs throughout the social assistance system. Policy makers seem to have designed the system to minimize costs, not to help people. It’s as if getting people off of social assistance makes the problem go away.

The people are not the problem, of course. The problem is the rules that keep people in poverty.

In Ontario, social assistance, both Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support Program, is divided into two portions: basic needs (which is intended for food, clothing, and other personal items) and shelter allowance. To get the shelter allowance, you have to provide proof that you are paying for housing costs such as rent, mortgage, or utilities. If you can’t show receipts, you can’t get the shelter allowance.

Ontario isn’t the only province where this happens. The government of Nova Scotia has made a similar choice.

Bradley Lowe was a 30-year-old man who lived in an encampment in Halifax. Nova Scotia, like Ontario, earmarks shelter as a distinct portion of social assistance. Since Mr. Lowe was living in a tent, he was not receiving the shelter allowance. In a legal challenge to Nova Scotia’s policyof withholding that support, he argued that his tent was his home, which he owned, and therefore should receive the full amount of social assistance.

Tragically, Mr. Lowe died in December. His appeal to Nova Scotia’s Assistance Appeal Board had not yet been decided. His attorney, Vince Calderhead, is carrying on with the case, which affects many others in similar situations.

Our social systems failed Mr. Lowe. They failed to fulfill his human right to housing and to an adequate standard of living. He was forced to make his own home and fight for the full amount of social assistance, which still falls far below any of Canada’s measures of poverty.

In Ontario, single adults who are unhoused would find themselves in a similar bind. On Ontario Works, they would receive $343 per month for basic needs, and $0 for shelter. That works out to about $11 per day. No one can say with a straight face that $11 per day is a program designed to help people. How is it possible for someone to get by, let alone to get back on their feet, with so little?

Obviously, this decision to provide a person with so little support, and to take support away when they don’t have stable housing, does not make sense in a person’s life. It doesn’t respond to a person’s circumstances or needs. It doesn’t function to bolster their well-being, or stop them from falling further into poverty. Instead, it responds to a person who has lost their home by making their life even harder.

We’re not the first people to point out this flaw in the system. In 2012, a Commission for the Review of Social Assistance in Ontario recommended a “standard rate,” which would not divide payments into basic needs and shelter portions. That means everyone would receive the full amount, even if they were not paying rent or other traditional housing costs. This would make payments more equitable and easier for recipients to understand. It would also be less complicated for front-line staff to administer. Instead of spending time checking receipts and bills, and trying to figure out intimate details of people’s living situations, staff could focus on building positive relationships with recipients.

In 2017, three expert working groups repeated this call in Income Security: A Roadmap for Change, and further recommended that Ontario “[i]ntroduce an approach to serving people receiving Ontario Works and ODSP that promotes a culture of trust, collaboration and problem-solving as a priority, and supports good quality of life outcomes for people in all communities….” That this even needed to be said speaks volumes.

Social assistance should be designed to help people. It should take into account each person’s unique circumstances, marshal our system resources to greatest effect, and advance every person’s human right to an adequate standard of living. It should treat people with respect and dignity.

Social assistance should help people get out of poverty. To do that, it must be designed to make sense in people’s lives.

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