Frances Lankin, co-Commissioner of the Social Assistance Review Commission, was interviewed this morning (July 5) by Matt Galloway on Toronto’s Metro Morning radio program.

You can listen to the interview on the CBC’s website by clicking here.

Here is an unofficial transcript of the conversation:

Matt Galloway (MG): How could Ontario’s social assistance programs better help those who need them and encourage those who can work to find work?

Those are the questions being asked by the Commission for the Review of Social Assistance in Ontario.

Yesterday we heard a first-hand perspective of Karen Hearn, single mother of two who’s on the Ontario Disability Support Program, or ODSP. She talked about how difficult it was simply to make ends meet and then try and figure out a way to lay a path for a better future for herself based on what she received through ODSP.

Today, we’re joined by one of the Commissioners currently travelling this province seeking suggestions. Frances Lankin is the former president of United Way Toronto. She is in Hamilton this morning. Frances, good morning.

Frances Lankin (FL): Good morning, Matt.

MG: You are on the job, having met with people in Windsor and London. You are on your way to Niagara later on today. What are you hearing about social assistance and, well, let’s start with what’s going wrong?

FL: Well I think that people look at this system and say, there’s two goals. One is to provide transition support to help people get back into the paid labour force, and the other is for those who can’t work to provide adequate income and support in their lives to live a life with some dignity and not be in abject poverty. And what we’re hearing is a pretty loud consensus that the system is not working, it’s not meeting those goals, and that tweaking and tinkering just won’t do. It requires fundamental reform.

MG: Where are the faults, from your perspective, and based on what you know through your reviews but also in your time with United Way Toronto where, as I said earlier, you knew through that, and you saw the need in this city, and how people relied on programs like that for a helping hand.

FL: Well, if the help that’s required is help to get back into the paid labour force, there’s a couple of things at play that are pretty critical.

First of all, for people who have found themselves in the situation of being on social assistance, there’s probably some major crises in their lives. And the first thing that’s required are the kind of helping supports to stabilize a person’s life. They may have lost their housing, they may require support with child care, there could be medical issues that need to be addressed. And often the system doesn’t integrate and provide those kinds of supports that will help a person stabilize their life in order to take the next step back to employment.

With respect to employment services, there are a myriad of programs, it’s hard to find your way through the right door to get the right support. And often the kind of training that people get, or the kind of help and program supports they get, don’t lead to a job that can become a permanent job that can help lift them and their families out of poverty. Often, it’s into a job where there is a contract, it’s short-term, there’s no benefits, and people and their families start into a cycle, a downward spiral. It can be very, very depressing for individuals, they can’t get ahead, they end up mired in debt, and that’s when they get stuck into the system.

MG: It’s that idea of not getting ahead that’s key. One of the things we know is that, we heard this yesterday from Karen Hearn who’s on ODSP, is that the cost of living doesn’t seem to be factored in to what people are getting back. And so, as you say, there’s no opportunity for people to move themselves forward because they can barely stay afloat as it is.

FL: We’ve been hearing from all of the community voices, and before we started our travel and community visits we’ve been meeting with provincial organizations. There’s a very loud cry for us to have a methodology to establish social assistance rates. And as we heard in Hamilton last night, people are calling for an evidence-based approach. By that they mean, let’s take a look at what the average cost of housing is in a community, let’s look at what food costs are, transportation availability and costs are, and build, from the ground up, a rate that will help people live in the community where they are from.

The other thing that we hear, however, is that that has to be established in the context of the labour market that we see and that people will be entering. And there’s a real challenge there for policy makers, I think, to figure this out, because that labour market is seeing an increase in the kind of jobs that government calls non-standard jobs, in the community it’s referred to as precarious employment. Low wage, short-term, no benefits. And so, creating a system where those things work together, there’s a lot of pressure and there’s a lot of trade-offs, and the answers perhaps are not all within the design of the social assistance system. There are some fundamental things going on in our economy that, in communities, we have to talk about and we have to get policy makers to consider in the whole mix of issues that are on the table.

MG: Do you honestly believe that this will be taken seriously, in a time of austerity, in a time of pulling back, but also in an election year where social assistance often isn’t politically, a review of social assistance isn’t politically expedient?

FL: Matt, I’ve spent most of my adult life honestly believing that these things are important and that someone will listen if we keep working. And so, that hasn’t changed about me or I wouldn’t have said yes to this.

MG: Believing they’re important is one thing, but believing that the politicians that are responsible for changing this are actually going to take this on in a meaningful way is another.

FL: So, I think, yes, I do believe it and here’s why I believe it. The consensus that exists around the fact that the system is broken, that it’s not working, is very strong. And that goes across all three political parties in the Ontario legislature. We’re meeting with representatives of government but we’re also meeting with representatives of opposition parties. And we have heard directly that people think things need to be fixed. There may be different opinions about what needs to be fixed, and we need to work to listen and to build responses to a broad cross-section of views.

What I think is really important about the work that’s going on right now is we’ve asked communities to convene community consultations that bring business, labour, broader community, people with lived experience, first nations, front-line workers, together to identify the challenges and the solutions together. To try and build a social consensus. If we can get any kind of consensus emerging, I think governments of any political stripe will want to respond to try and make the system better.

MG: Frances, good to talk to you.

FL: You too, Matt. Take care.