Ontario’s Social Assistance Review report, released Monday morning, called for Ontario to create a plan to ensure income security for the province, saying such a plan would help the economic recovery.

Over the years, different political parties who hold power in Ontario have said welfare reform was needed, and after hearings and reviews, changes would be implemented. The most devastating changes were made under Mike Harris’s leadership, which saw Ontario’s Social Assistance programs essentially gutted.

As a result of Harris’s welfare reforms, pregnant Kimberly Rogers committed suicide while under house custody for welfare fraud, a sensational case that rocked public perceptions about welfare recipients, highlighting the effects of the cuts to income support for the poor. Since that time, the trend has been to slowly and incrementally increase allowances given to Ontario’s indigent, although the rates have not yet been reinstated to the levels they were at before Harris made cuts. The Social Assistance Review Committee said Ontario’s social assistance system is punitive, working to trap people. In the the reportRecommendations for an Ontario Income Security Review, the Committee states

‘The current social assistance system is based on the budget deficit model. By its nature, the budget deficit model is intricate, rule-bound, complicated, hard to understand and difficult to administer fairly. The consequences are stigma, a high degree of invasiveness into the personal lives of recipients and the enforcement of rules placed above real support. The system requires applicants to deplete most financial assets, making it harder to recover from an economic setback. Once in the system, recipients live on substandard incomes, and often become trapped in a cycle of poverty.’

The welfare system was not intended to trap people in poverty, but anybody relying on social assistance in Ontario today is guaranteed to not have enough money to provide for basic needs, particularly single people. For that reason, the Committee has asked the Ontario government to immediately

‘… address the incomes of social assistance recipients without children. Their incomes fall far below any reasonable liveable standard.’

The problems with income security do not lie solely with social assistance, the report states. Rather,

‘… Ontario … needs a comprehensive review of Ontario’s income security system. Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support Program represent 23 percent of all provincial and federal income security program spending that serves working-age adult Ontarians. Social assistance is but one piece of a patchwork of income security, employment and social supports.’

The result of the current system, Committee Chair Gail Nyberg notes, in a press release, aer hefty expensitures that ultimately does not really help to eliminate poverty.

‘We are currently investing billions into federal and provincial programs that too often trap people in poverty and fail to offer alternatives to social assistance. Tinkering with a broken system will not lead to different outcomes. It’s time to unleash a bold review.’

The Committee recommends a six-pronged approach to strengthening Ontario’s social safety net:

– Building on the approach of the Ontario Child Benefit, develop an expanded range of income and services to be available to all low-income Ontarians. – Strengthen initiatives such as minimum wage increases, enhanced employment standards, fair employment initiatives and the federal Working Income Tax Benefit to ensure the labour market offers effective pathways out of poverty. – Replace short term coverage in Ontario Works with more appropriate financial support outside of the social assistance system for those who are temporarily unemployed. – Re-engineer long-term coverage in Ontario Works as an opportunity planning program to support achieving full labour market potential through skills building, education, training, employment and related support. – Develop standards for a liveable income and a process to use those standards to assess the adequacy of Ontarians’ incomes. – Improve income and social supports for those whose reasonable prospects of earning liveable incomes from employment are limited by disability or other circumstances, including a possible new vision for the Ontario Disability Support Program and exploring options for alternative models of financial assistance.

The Review Committee hopes the government will initiate a comprehensive review of Ontario’s capacity to provide income security to all residents of the province. As the authors state in the report,

‘A transformed income security system in Ontario should: • Contribute to labour market opportunities to ensure jobs provide real pathways out of poverty; • Provide workforce development and related services to help all Ontarians do better, including support for out-of-work and underemployed Ontarians to transition into sustainable employment; • Support Ontarians in good and bad times, through liveable incomes and community supports.’

Nyberg is the Executive Director of Toronto’s Daily Bread Foodbank. The other committee members were Colette Murphy, Metcalf Foundation; Grace-Edward Galabuzi, Ryerson University; John Stapleton, St. Christopher House and Metcalf Foundation Fellow; Kira Heineck, Ontario Municipal Social Services Association; Mary Marrone, Income Security Advocacy Centre; Michael Mendelson, Caledon Institute; Michael Oliphant, Daily Bread Food Bank; Pat Capponi, Voices from the Street; Pedro Barata, Atkinson Foundation; Valerie Monague, Beausoleil First Nation. All members were appointed to the Committee by the Ontario Ministry of Community and Social Services to

‘… submit recommendations to the Minister of Community and Social Services regarding the scope and terms of reference for a review of Ontario’s social assistance system; advise the Minister of Community and Social Services regarding possible short-term changes to social assistance rules.’

The Ontario government has not yet commented on the report or to the call to increase the allowances provided for single people.

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