There are danger signs in Ford government plans to reform welfare

Posted on in Social Security Policy Context

TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorials
Nov. 22, 2018.   By

As political tactics go, it’s not a bad one.

Drum up fears that the social assistance program than sustains nearly 1 million Ontarians might be gutted. Do this by talking about how it costs taxpayers $10 billion a year, isn’t sustainable, and doesn’t encourage people to work.

In short, terrify the people who can barely survive on what they’re getting now that something much worse is coming their way. Then deliver a series of changes that, at first glance anyway, aren’t as bad as expected, and even include the potential for improvements down the line.

To be sure, Ontario’s social assistance system does not work as well as it should for anybody. But where the rubber always meets the proverbial road is figuring out how to fix it.

Doug Ford’s government unveiled its plan this week to “restore dignity, independence and empowerment” to those on social assistance.

The biggest change is redefining disability to more closely align with federal guidelines. Lisa MacLeod, the minister of children, community and social services, says this will provide “clarity.”

Perhaps it will. But the government isn’t doing this to make paper-pushing easier. This change will make it harder for new people to qualify for the Ontario Disability Support Program. And the obvious underlying suggestion is that there are people on the program now who shouldn’t be.

People with “severe disabilities” who can’t work will be treated with “compassion and dignity in our new system,” MacLeod promised. Those who can work will also be treated with dignity and better supported to find jobs, she went on. “If you can work, or if you can’t, we have a plan to help you.”

But part of the plan, clearly, is to move people from one group to another by ruling more injured workers or those suffering mental issues ineligible for disability support. That leaves them with no option but the Ontario Works program, which provides substantially less support. The monthly maximum for a single person on disability is $1,169 compared to just $733 on welfare.

Those already on disability benefits will be grandfathered. But once the changes take effect, every person who can be ruled ineligible for disability amounts to hundreds of dollars in monthly savings to the government — or in Ford-speak, “efficiencies.”

The other major change is an increase to the earnings exemption to encourage people on social assistance to get a foothold in the workforce with part-time or occasional jobs.

It’s a change that countless system reviews and reports have called for. And it was one of a series of changes approved by the former Wynne Liberal government that were scheduled to take effect next month, until they were put on hold last summer.

What the Ford government has come out with now is worse than what was planned. The earning exemption for someone on welfare will increase from $200 a month to $300, instead of $400 as the Liberals had planned.

And those on welfare will see their benefits reduced by 75 cents for every additional dollar they earn instead of the current 50 cents. That means people will hit the point that they’re no longer eligible for welfare sooner; ultimately, that may reduce the incentive to seek more work.

The government’s reforms also include improving employment services that so far have not had much success in moving people on welfare into the workforce permanently. It also promises to cut red tape and have case workers focus on the individual needs of social assistance recipients rather than slotting them into the rule-bound system. MacLeod spoke of empowering people rather than policing them.

Those are sorely needed changes. But the devil is in the details and MacLeod provided too few of those to know what all this will really mean. The Ford government has not earned the benefit of the doubt on this file.

MacLeod called the government “compassionate” when it slashed a planned increase in social assistance payments, leaving people living in abject poverty. And it has a track record of saying policies will be good for the lowest income earners when they are clearly not.

The best example of that is the tax credit for low-income workers, which MacLeod pointed to again on Thursday. Given how little tax the lowest income workers in this province pay now, this measure puts far less money in their pockets than they would have had if Ford hadn’t cancelled a planned raise in the minimum wage to $15. The PCs also rolled back labour reforms designed to benefit workers in low-paid, precarious jobs, claiming this would help people find jobs.

If “the best social program is a job,” as MacLeod likes to say, why is the Ford government so keen to make it even harder to get a decent entry-level job?

Earlier this week, MacLeod stood in the legislature and stated emphatically how “unacceptable” it is that one in seven people in Ontario live in poverty. “We are a wealthy province and we can be doing better,” she said. She’s right about that.

But it’s far from clear that her plans will do much to improve the situation of those on welfare. And for those on disability the days ahead look even worse.

https://www.thestar.com/opinion/editorials/2018/11/22/there-are-danger-signs-in-ford-government-plans-to-reform-welfare.html

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This entry was posted on Saturday, November 24th, 2018 at 8:46 pm and is filed under Social Security Policy Context. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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