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July 3, 2013

Hope for Ontario welfare?

Reuel S. Amdur

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The shift in the premiership of Ontario from Dalton McGuinty to Kathleen Wynne provides reason for cautious optimism on the welfare front.

Ted McMeekin, the province’s new Minister of Community and Social Services, combines two things that in combination have been absent for over half a century at least—a genuine concern and a firm grasp on the reality of social assistance and its impact.  He is a social worker who was at one time Executive Director of the Burlington Social Planning Council.

What he will be able to accomplish in his caucus of the Liberal Party remains to be seen. 

However, he has already made some positive moves and he is making the right noises about consultation with stakeholders, including recipients, in next steps.  This should be a prelude to some substantial increases in rates.  As a backbencher, he had introduced a bill to have rates set by a broadly based committee including recipients.

There is a tendency to think that the NDP would be most constructive in dealing with social assistance.  The sad experience with the Bob Rae government should have disabused us all of that illusion. 

One of the things that McMeekin has already done is to eliminate the Bob Rae government’s policy on car ownership.  Rae had set a $5000 limit on the value of a car that someone could have while on the social assistance program now called Ontario Works.  The value had since been increased to $10,000, before McMeekin tossed the regulation out altogether.

Why did Rae institute the policy?  The Tories found someone in receipt who had an expensive car, so Rae, running scared, left car possession untouched for the disabled but put in place a complicated regulation about car ownership for those on ordinary welfare.

Well, that was then and this is now, you might say.  Surely we can expect better from Andrea Horwath.  Wrong.  Horwath made a number of demands on the Liberals in order for them to get NDP support in the legislature.  One was an increase in ODSP rates.  McMeekin, knowing his stuff, did one better.  He also increased Ontario Works, something she did not demand.  The difference between Horwath and McMeekin on this matter illustrates her lack of understanding.  Here’s why.

Ontario Works (OW) is the general welfare assistance program.  The Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) is for the disabled, but in real fact many people on Ontario Works are as disabled as many of those on ODSP.  The system is simply unable to determine adequately the difference.  In any case, the needs of the two groups are not that different.  They both need to eat, pay the rent, send the kids to school, etc.  Medical and special dietary needs are available under both programs. 

The reason for the distinction between the two is prejudice toward the unemployed.  People are afraid that someone is getting away with something.  Feeding into this bigotry, and of course he is a firm adherent of it, Mike Harris cut OW rates by 21.6%, leaving ODSP untouched. 

Since then, all increases to rates have been percentage increases, having the effect of constantly increasing the dollar gap between the two rates.  ODSP rates are close to double those of OW, the largest gap in Canada in comparison with similar categories in other provinces.  Horwath, if she had gotten what she asked for, would have left OW further behind and increased the gap between the programs even more.

Well, McMeekin came up with a 1% increase for both, as per the pattern set since Harris.  But then he did something else—he added an additional $14 to the checks of single people on OW.  He has begun to narrow the gap. 

McMeekin is not the premier.  He is working within a government and a caucus, and he can’t do everything at once.  He has to work on bringing his government along in the direction he knows it needs to go, but he has made a start. 

Ontario has increased the amount that people on OW can have in assets.  It has set new and more generous amounts that people on assistance can keep from earning, the same standards for both ODSP and OW.  There are other positive changes here and there, indicative of a minister who both knows and cares, something seriously lacking heretofore. 

There are three major challenges that face McMillan in his position.  If he meets them successfully, the poor of Ontario will find themselves better able to take their place in society and more likely to move beyond poverty.  The biggest challenge is to set rates at a level allowing recipients to live in conditions of dignity and decency.  Next is to eliminate the phony distinction between those entitled to a disability rate and those less worthy supposed by the Mike Harrises of this world to being OW freeloaders.  The third challenge is to tackle the complexity of the system, with its vast number of petty regulations.

Back in 1988, the Social Assistance Review Committee report called for reducing the extreme complexity of the regulations. 

Following that report, the Rae and Harris governments proceeded to increase the complexity astronomically.  What is needed now is an examination in detail of the regulations to simplify them and to eliminate the unnecessary and inappropriate ones. 

Unfortunately, the Lankin-Sheikh exercise did not undertake that task.  McMeekin should put this gargantuan task in motion.  Simple tinkering here and there will not do the job.  He should be in a position to move on this.

One final note: All provincial governments and the federal government are occupied with health and health care.  It is now well established that poverty is a leading cause of ill health and of demands on the health system.  It is a health issue and needs to be considered as being in the same category as smoking--to be eliminated. 

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