City council has approved a local push to reform Ontario’s social assistance system by setting rates that would meet basic needs.

Economist Dr. Atif Kubursi and Hamilton Community Legal Clinic staff lawyer Craig Foye presented a report to council Monday about the economic impact of spending by Hamiltonians living on social assistance. They requested councillors endorse the report and write to the province, emphasizing the need for an “evidence-based” model for setting social assistance rates.

Council’s endorsement came on the same day Frances Lankin and Dr. Munir Sheikh, who were appointed last year to a provincial social assistance review commission, visited various agencies in the city and held a forum at the Hamilton Convention Centre in which they received public input.

After a lengthy debate, city council voted 8-6 to write to the commission, the premier and the Ministry of Community and Social Services, stressing the need for an independent social assistance review board that would set rates based on what it costs annually to maintain a residence and buy basic necessities.

They are also directing the economic development department to come back to council about incorporating “pro-poor” and community economic development strategies into the overall economic policy in its five-year strategy.

Current social assistance rates “are arbitrary numbers and they are politically determined. They have no connection at all to the actual cost of basic necessities in communities across Ontario,” Foye said.

“The rates … should be based on evidence, should be rationally connected to the actual costs of goods and services in the communities in which the individuals and families receiving those benefits reside.”

Kubursi’s findings are an example of the type of evidence needed in analyzing social assistance rates, as they point to the economic benefit of the programs, Foye said.

The Economic Impact of Social Assistance in Hamilton document indicates the $368 million received by adult beneficiaries of Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support Program in 2009 generated about $440 million of income for the province. About $296 million remained in the city.

The expenditures also led to the equivalent of 5,441 full-time jobs in the province. More than 3,383 of these positions were in the city, according to the findings.

“Societies … are no longer judged by their economic prowess in terms of their growth, but by the extent by which they take care of their bottom 10 per cent,” said Kubursi, an economist with Econometric Research Limited.

But Mayor Bob Bratina cautioned councillors multiple times not to move too quickly in endorsing the report until staff has looked it over and come back to council.

He raised concerns about the report over the fact philanthropic contributions made in Hamilton were not factored into the data.

Later in the day, Lankin and Sheikh met with the authors of the local report to discuss their findings and their campaign for a new way of setting social assistance rates.

During a meeting with The Spectator’s editorial board, Lankin and Sheikh noted some of the dominant public feedback they have been receiving, including criticism of the “maze” of eligibility rules and a push to make recipients work-ready.

The commissioners are visiting 10 communities this summer before releasing a document outlining options for recommendations by the end of the year.

One of their concerns is designing a benefit structure that provides sufficient support but does not create different standards that discourage recipients from seeking work, Lankin said.

Sheikh echoed the public’s concern.

“I don’t think there is an anchor to the existing benefit structure. It’s not quite clear as to how these benefits get set. (That’s) one thing we’re looking at,” he said.

The commissioners have a year to put together a report with an action plan.


Read this article on the Hamilton Spectator’s website