“It is not a matter of small fixes.”

— Dr. Munir Sheikh, commissioner, provincial social assistance review commission.

As understatements go, Sheikh’s is a dramatic one.

The 18-month review of social assistance in Ontario that he is undertaking with commissioner Frances Lankin will be the largest — and we hope most thorough — examination of social assistance programs since the late 1980s. In the interim, those programs have taken a beating, most significantly during the Mike Harris years of ideologically based cuts.

Sheikh is right that this is not about small fixes. Our social assistance system is well and truly broken. The rules are numerous, complex and often seem arbitrary; some are downright punitive. Benefit rates bear no relationship to the actual cost of basic necessities. People on social assistance — Ontario Works (OW) or the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) — do not have enough money to feed themselves properly.

Sheikh, the head of Statistics Canada who quit last summer on principle over the cancellation of the long-form census, and Lankin, a former NDP MPP and cabinet minister as well as the former head of the United Way of Toronto, have a huge job ahead of them. In a meeting with The Spectator’s editorial board earlier this week, they said they are determined to produce recommendations that are practical, achievable and sustainable.

Just a cursory examination of social assistance rates reveals them to be woefully inadequate. Even a single person earning minimum wage at a full-time job falls below the low income cut-off — essentially what we used to call the poverty line. But a single person on OW generally receives about $592 per month. That’s $19.10 per day to live on. A bachelor apartment in Hamilton goes for about $501 per month; that leave less than $3 a day for everything else. It’s difficult to fathom how people manage to survive. Is it any surprise the majority of those who use our food banks are social assistance recipients?

The problem with our broken social assistance system is not only about the inadequacy of the benefits. There are more than 800 rules that make the system a nightmare to navigate. The focus is too much on eligibility — is this person disabled enough to be on ODSP; is that person trying hard enough to find work to be on OW?

But, at the same time, the system operates on a clawback basis that penalizes many of those who do enter the workforce, leaving them no further ahead. Where, then, is the incentive to find paid work? Why work part-time if you are punished for such initiative, if it doesn’t actually improve life for your family? Clearly, it’s a no-win situation.

If benefit rates are evidence-based, will it cost taxpayers more? Probably in the short term, but not necessarily in the longer term, provided the system is reformed to make it easier for recipients to move into paid work and, ultimately, into a life of greater dignity.

Many complain about fraud in the system. There is no doubt it exists, but it is minuscule relative to the system as a whole. And, if we are so upset by that type of fraud, why do we not rail as loudly against those who cheat on their income tax?

The social assistance system is balkanized where it needs to be unified, monolithic where it needs to be flexible. The recommendations that come out of this review will not be ready before October’s provincial election. Regardless of the outcome of the vote, the province must ensure the system is fair and sensible.


Read this editorial on the Hamilton Spectator’s website