Think about a small ball of string that you keep at home. Every time you have a loose piece of string, you wrap it around the ball and poke each end into the ball. You keep up the practice for years until you have an unkempt ball of string that is as big as a basketball.
In your mind’s eye, think of taking that large ball of string and immersing in a large vat of crazy glue. Take it out and let it dry until it is hard. Then think of handing it to a friend and saying “Your job is now to unravel the ballâ€.
Now think of a rickety old bridge that is still open to traffic. Again, in your mind’s eye, think of building a whole new bridge that will take even more traffic for years to come. At the moÂment the bridge is finished, you divert all the traffic from the old bridge. The new bridge is working and the old bridge can now be dismantled.
The social assistance system can either be the ball of string in crazy glue or the old bridge that needs to be replaced. When the Ontario social assistance review begins, the immediate choice confronting the reviewers will be to decide between the ball or the bridge. They can choose to attempt to unravel a set of 800 rules, most of which are cast in the negative (i.e. no one is eligible unless…) or envisage a new and better system independent from resolving the current one. Alternatively, they can choose to do some unravelling that is consistent with the construction of a new system.
Unravelling the ball will be a long and involved process. Each time a rule is changed, another set of rules will emerge that will call for further change for internal consistency and fairness. Unintended consequences will require redress while new costs and savings will be noted. Unravelling the ball will require the dedication of an unprecedented level of expert resources and large amounts of concentrated blocks of time from decision makers.
Imagining and building the architecture for a new bridge will not take as long as unravelling the ball and will be far less complicated a task. The goal would be to replace the outmoded social assistance system with a new system of income transfers to individuals and families that largely abandons the traditional tenets of a welfare-based approached to meeting need.