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June 29, 2009

Dalton McGuinty’s War on the Poor

Reuel S. Amdur

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There are two programs for social assistance in Ontario, Ontario Works (OW) and the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP).

There are two programs for social assistance in Ontario, Ontario Works (OW) and the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP). 

These programs existed previously under different names, but the current formulation is essentially that imposed by the Mike Harris Conservatives. 

Ontario Works is an income support program for Ontario residents. Eligibility is determined on the basis of income, assets, family size, and housing costs.  As an example, a single person living in private housing is entitled to a normal maximum of $572 monthly, of which $356 is for housing.  In reality many recipients pay more than $356 for rent.  A person may have no more than one month’s worth of assets in order to be eligible, though some assets are not taken into consideration.

For those deemed able to work or potentially able to become employable, there are obligations to engage in employment search, volunteer activities, or job placement. 

Recipients of OW are entitled to prescription drugs at a cost of $2 each.  Children are covered for dental treatment and adults for limited dental care.  Glasses are covered, as are diabetic and surgical supplies.  As well, assistive devices are available, with co-payment through the Ministry of Health Assistive Devices Program.  If a person has many medical and social service appointments, there may be eligibility for transportation.

In order to be eligible for benefits under the Ontario Disability Support Program, a person must have one or more of the following restrictions, expected to last a year or more:  substantial limitations in self care, in ability to function in the community, in ability to function in the workplace.  Such limitations must be verified by a health professional with the specified qualifications, most often a physician.  Eligibility for ODSP purely on the basis of substance abuse is currently an issue going through the courts.

ODSP recipients are entitled to all the extras to which OW clients have access.  The normal maximum for a single person living in private housing is $1020 a month.  This person may have $5,000 in assets, in addition to other assets in specified categories. 

The most fundamental problem with social assistance in Ontario is the miserly level of benefits, especially for Ontario Works (OW).  In constant dollars, the current $572 a month for one person is less than the rate in 1996, back when Mike Harris cut benefits for OW by 21.6%.  At the time, Dalton McGuinty, then leader of the Opposition, opposed the cut, but his treatment of recipients in this most important category—money—is worse than that imposed by Harris.  And his Minister of Community and Social Services Madeleine Meilleur is concerned that raising rates substantially would discourage people from trying to get off OW.

Then there is the ever-widening gap between rates for OW and ODSP.  Until 1970, rates for the earlier programs were almost the same.  Then, the William Davis Conservatives decided to increase disability benefits but not those for the others.  The worthy poor versus the unworthy.  The gap has continued to widen, to the point now that ODSP rates for a single person come close to doubling those for OW.  To make this situation even more absurd, the system is very deficient in determining who is disabled.  Let’s take an example of the system’s failure to determine disability.

After Mary’s application was turned down by the Disability Adjudication Unit, she appealed to the Social Benefits Tribunal.  At the hearing, I assisted the lawyer representing her.  Of course, she was present, as was the Tribunal member hearing the case and a case presenting officer representing the Disability Adjudication Unit.  I think that was all, but the member seemed to think otherwise, if we can judge by his written decision. 

Let’s be frank: the member was having visual hallucinations.  He referred to another person, someone I certainly didn’t see, someone identified as “the interpreter”.  But that’s not all.  He was also having auditory hallucinations.  When I asked Mary if she could handle a job using a computer, she said no.  I’m sure that the microphone recording the hearing would have picked up that no, but “the interpreter” apparently translated that as yes, and that’s how it appeared in the decision. 

But even if “the interpreter” had been correct-- and he, she, or it certainly was not-- the evidence was in any case quite sufficient to justify Mary’s claim.  The psychologist’s report found her to be of low intelligence.  The best option for her, according to the psychologist, would be placement in a sheltered workshop—but only after successful treatment for her severe depression.

While we might not expect our hallucinating presiding member to figure out the implications, we have to wonder why the case had to go to appeal.  The Disability Adjudication Unit should have seen the obvious.  I mean, what part of “sheltered workshop” did the anonymous adjudicator not understand?

OW is supposedly a program of short-term assistance, but there are people on OW with histories going back 20 years and more.  The Disability Adjudication Unit seems, for example, to ignore depression unless there has been hospital involvement.  It is extremely  difficult it is to get someone into hospital on the basis of depression.

An additional problem with the system is the matter of complexity.  Even the workers and supervisors administering the program have problems knowing all the ins and outs.  Back in 1988, the Social Assistance Review Committee’s Transitions report called for a reduction in the complexity of the system.  Subsequently, the NDP Rae government proceeded to increase complexity exponentially, followed by the Harris government which increased it astronomically.  Let’s take an example of the complexity and accompanying confusion.

Before the NDP government, a welfare recipient (now OW) could have a car of any value.  Then, the NDP put a limit on the value based on the Red Book.  In her book Hope & Despair Monia Mazigh tells in passing about her experiences in applying for OW.  The first time, she was told by the worker that she had to sell her car, use up the money, and then reapply.  The second time, a different worker did not even ask about the car. Neither response was in accord with the policy.

The Liberal government eliminated a couple complexities, such as the Harris provision of placing a lien on property for long-time OW recipients and the NDP provision of a $50 a month deduction for immigrants whose sponsors fail in their commitments, but they left the car policy and an appallingly complicated Harris policy on adults living with parents, for example.

It should be noted that the Activities of Daily Living Index, a document required to be completed in application for ODSP, is confusing, leading doctors or other health professionals completing it to understate the severity of the applicant’s problem.

In short, the system harkens back to the old worthy versus unworthy distinction.  It pays too little to meet needs.  It is complex and convoluted.  And it pretends to be able to differentiate between the disabled and those not, something that it does poorly.

* Reuel S. Amdur is a freelance writer living near Ottawa.

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