Last December, Deb Matthews, chief architect of Ontario’s poverty reduction strategy, announced that the government would launch a review of its rigid and restrictive social assistance rules.

To outsiders, it sounded like bureaucratic housekeeping. But to people living on welfare, it was a breakthrough. ‘This ends more than a decade of poor bashing, of deliberate and callous targeting of those in living in poverty,’ said Pat Capponi of Voices from the Street, which encourages the poor and homeless to speak out. ‘It’s a new day in Ontario.’

Welfare recipients waited expectantly in February when the Legislature reconvened. Nothing happened.

They took hope in March when Premier Dalton McGuinty acknowledged that the current welfare system ‘stomps you into the ground.’ Nothing happened.

Provincial budget day came and went. Nothing happened.

Asked about the long hiatus, Kevin Cooke of the Ministry of Community and Social Services said: ‘We’re still determining the scope of the social assistance review. We don’t want to jump into it.’

He could not say when the review would begin, how long it would take or whether there would be public hearings.

Is this typical bureaucratic inertia? Is the government having second thoughts? Or is the issue bigger and riskier than the Liberals anticipated?

The answer – to the extent that it can be pieced together by a journalist – is all of the above.

The first discouraging signal came in December. The cabinet committee on poverty reduction, headed by Matthews, was disbanded. The commitments it had announced were farmed out to various ministers. Madeleine Meilleur, minister of community and social services, was put in charge of the social assistance review.

Anti-poverty activists groaned. Meilleur is one of the less dynamic ministers in the McGuinty cabinet. Her department is cautious, slow moving and resistant to change.

February brought more bad news. Social assistance caseloads spiked. The Liberals began to worry about the financial implications of making welfare easier to get.

Their concerns deepened in March when John Tory, the Conservative party’s moderate leader, announced he would step down. The prospect of fighting a right winger in the Mike Harris mould in the next election conjured up visions of the kind of anti-tax, anti-welfare backlash that toppled New Democrat Bob Rae in 1995.

April finally brought an encouraging glimmer. McGuinty’s office took charge. The premier’s officials sent the Ministry of Community and Social Services back to the drawing board, with instructions to be bolder. And they set a target date – late spring or early summer – to get the review rolling.

But there are still challenges:

There is a split within Liberal ranks over the advisability of public hearings. Some think the government has already spent enough time listening to welfare recipients. Others insist they have a right to help reshape the system that trapped and stigmatized them.

There is a large gap between the government’s intentions and anti-poverty activists’ expectations. McGuinty and his ministers regard the social assistance review as a way to ‘remove barriers and increase opportunity – with a particular focus on people trying to move into employment from social assistance.’ Anti-poverty activists see it as a partnership between government and users to build a more humane system.

Without Matthews at the helm, the poverty reduction strategy has lost its focus and much of its momentum. Parts are proceeding, other parts are bogged down.

The lines of communication are still open between the premier’s office and the anti-poverty movement. But disappointment is on the verge of souring into distrust.

Read this editorial on the Toronto Star’s website