Envisioning a New Approach

A Response to the Commissioners for the Review of Social Assistance

In November 2010, the Ontario government appointed two Commissioners, Frances Lankin and Munir Sheikh to lead its Review of Social Assistance. The Commissioners released their initial Discussion Paper on June 9. This paper responds to that Discussion Paper and will form the basis of ISAC’s submission. We continue to work with our partners to develop the ideas set out here, and our final submission, which will be submitted by August 31, will be informed by our ongoing discussions.


ISAC, together with many community and social policy partners, have been calling for an overhaul of social assistance since the government announced its commitment to developing a poverty reduction strategy. We did this because Ontario Works (OW), as a “work first” program, is not meeting its stated objectives: it has failed as a program to provide income supports effectively, and it has failed as a program to promote labour market attachment. Ontario Works in particular undermines the values and policy framework of Ontario’s Poverty Reduction Act, and Poverty Reduction Strategy. While the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) certainly needs improvement, it is OW that needs transformation.

Evidence of failure of the program comes from municipal, community and university-based researchers employing both quantitative and qualitative methods.  There has been no evaluation or research by the province, but a temporary income support program that sees a 40% return rate to benefits within the year (as cited in the Commission’s discussion paper) is not succeeding in integrating people into the labour market. Some municipal administrators say the rate is even higher over multiple years. Other jurisdictions that had work first programs have come to the same conclusions and are moving to different models of delivery of income support and welfare to work programs. (See Overview of International Welfare to Work Models at www.sareview.ca for more information)

Equally importantly, OW has “managed” the caseload by having a program that devotes more resources to rule enforcement and surveillance than to assisting people into the labour market, or to access other supports. While there is an issue with the punitive way people on social assistance are treated, it is the legislative framework itself that creates and reinforces this culture, thus requiring legislative reform.

While the discussion paper correctly identifies a broad consensus that OW “broken” the same cannot be said of the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP). As we discuss in detail below, in spite of its problems, ODSP has important positive features that should be preserved. Unlike OW, it is not the overall program objectives of ODSP that are the problem.

Read the entire Responding to the Review of Social Assistance here.