Ontario’s disability support program is supposed to keep people from falling into destitution because of their disability and help find jobs for those who can work.

At just $1,053 a month for a single person the rate is so low that it fails utterly in its first goal. And, once someone receives that cheque, hundreds of punitive rules kick in that undermine the program’s second goal as well.

As the Star’s Laurie Monsebraaten reports, Ontarians on disability support who have tried to improve their financial circumstance (and reduce their reliance on taxpayers) by doing some work have found themselves even poorer than before.

This makes no sense. Provincial officials — from Premier Dalton McGuinty down to the worker behind the glass window at a disability support office — must know that.

The government has changed a few rules, most importantly allowing recipients to keep more of their earnings before clawbacks kick in. Disappointingly, though, it has failed to undertake the comprehensive overhaul needed to make this program the hand up that it’s meant to be.

That’s why a group of advocates for Ontarians suffering from mental illness, who often cycle in and out of poverty, have released a new report entitled What Stops Us From Working. It compellingly argues for change, including exempting the first $300 of earnings from the 50 per cent clawback for one year; streamlining disability support rules with other programs like subsidized housing and child care; and reconciling earnings annually rather than monthly.

Such changes would reduce bureaucracy, increase the incentive to work and give those who can work full-time a fighting chance to actually get off disability support entirely.

What an improvement that would be. Sharon Burfind, for example, had to turn down additional hours at a job she loved because her subsidized rent would have skyrocketed far beyond her ability to pay. As she put it, “the majority of people work to get ahead, not to get behind.”

We cannot afford a system that undermines the very people it is supposed to help. A program that demoralizes recipients and impedes their transition to the workforce and self-sufficiency costs taxpayers far more in the end.

Ontario’s entire social assistance system is currently under review, but that panel won’t report until June of next year, well after the provincial election scheduled for this October.

Given that, provincial parities would do well to look at including in their upcoming election platforms recommendations from this report and the numerous others that have urged necessary reforms of our various social assistance programs.

A disability should not be a sentence to a life of crushing poverty.

Read this editorial on the Toronto Star’s website