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January 9, 2018

Roadmap into a Swamp

Reuel S. Amdur

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On September 1, a working group headed by Judge George Thomson produced a report for the Ontario government on social assistance reform entitled "Roadmap for Change." While it would take a very long essay to go over the report in detail, I will address a few matters-the proposed increase in Ontario Works rates, changes in the policy regarding so-called dependent and independent adults, and continuation of two programs for social assistance, one for employables, Ontario Works (OW), and the other for the disabled, the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP).

The report calls for an increase in Ontario Works rates by 22% over three years.  Premier Mike Harris cut the rate by 21.6% in 1997. Since then, the Liberals have not put the money back.  Harris cut the money all at once, but the Thomson report proposes to repair the damage over three years.  It’s been a long wait.

Harris also introduced the distinction between dependent and independent adults.  This applies to adults living with a parent or parents.  Dependent adults, as defined in the complex regulation, are included in a payment to the family, not individually.  The amount paid is less.  How do we determine if a person is independent and entitled in his own right?  He must, during his lifetime, have been self-supporting for a cumulative 12-month period.  However, if the family had ever rented out the room where he was living, the distinction did not apply.  There are other complications.  You get the idea.  The whole thing is a dog’s breakfast, difficult and time-consuming to administer.  The Thomson report calls for a revision of the regulation.

An earlier report headed by Thomson in 1988 called “Transitions” pointed to the complexity of social assistance as a major problem.  Right on!  Would Thomson 1988 take one look at the dependent-independent adult mess and simply have said to scrap the whole thing?  And the distinction applies only for OW, not for ODSP recipients living with family. 

Now to our third bone to pick with “Roadmap for Change.”  The report justifies different rates of assistance for OW and ODSP because, it claims, it is more expensive to live with a disability. No evidence whatever is provided for the claim.  In fact, there are separate additional amounts provided for special needs, beyond the rates for social assistance as such.  It would have made more sense if the report had called for a determination of what it costs to live in conditions of dignity and decency.  Talking about the costs of living with a disability as such makes no sense.  Which disability requiring what supports?  The current system does provide extra funds for special needs. Ontario governments of all stripes have refused to base assistance on cost of living, preferring instead to act on whim.  Contrary to Thomson, in 2012 Senators Frances Lankin and Munir Sheikh issued a report for the Ministry of Community and Social Services in which they recommended a single system of social assistance.  It was not evident to them that there were additional costs across the board.

An additional argument has been made that OW is only short term.  But in fiscal 2014-15, average time on OW was 27 months.  The Toronto Star, in an article on the Thomson report, featured a woman who has been on OW for nine years.  Getting on ODSP is a matter of luck of the draw.  Anyone who has worked in or around the system can easily cite examples of unjustified rejections.  Some are reversed on appeal.  Other applications make it the second or third time around. 

Having lived through changes in Ontario social assistance, I take a different explanation for the discrepancy in rates for OW and ODSP.  Over the years names and coverage have changed, so I will refer to the programs as municipal and provincial.  The current provincially administered program is ODSP, with OW being operated municipally.

When I came to Canada in 1969 to take a position with the Social Planning Council of Hamilton and District, the rates for the two programs were almost the same, although they were calculated using somewhat different building blocks.  However, under Premier Bill Davis the province chose to increase provincial rates preferentially.  The differential has increased constantly to the point where the provincial rate comes close to doubling that municipally for a single person.

Then in 1985 I was employed as a welfare worker in Toronto.  At that time, single parent families were part of the provincial program, no longer the case unless the woman is disabled.  However, there was a waiting period on the municipal program for single parents.  That is, unless the woman was a widow, in which case provincial eligibility was immediate.

You are probably getting the picture.  The worthy poor versus the unworthy.  Then Mike Harris made it explicit.  He complained that welfare recipients were a bunch of beer-swilling pregnant women.

Judge Thomson’s committee missed the boat.

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