TORONTO – Ontario’s $8.3 billion welfare system should be transformed into a simpler, more effective and accountable system that helps move more people, including the disabled, into jobs and out of poverty, says the long-awaited report from the province’s social assistance review commission.
Under this “transformational change,” disability benefits, children’s benefits and health benefits would be removed from social assistance and be available outside welfare to all low-income Ontarians, say commissioners Frances Lankin and Munir Sheikh in their 183-page report released Wednesday.
The commission, established in November 2010 to remove barriers and increase opportunities for people to work, was part of the province’s 2008 poverty reduction strategy.
Central to the report’s 108 recommendations is the proposed merger of Ontario Works (OW) and the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) into a single, integrated program with provincial standards but delivered locally by municipalities, which already administer OW.
ODSP is currently delivered by provincial officials. But the commissioners believe municipalities are better equipped to run the new job-focused program because they have connections to local employers and already administer other supports to low-income people such as child care, housing, settlement services, public health and addiction services.
“This report charts a new course for social assistance in Ontario, a course designed to support all recipients to participate in the workforce to the maximum of their abilities and to guarantee income security for those who cannot work,” says the report, entitled “Brighter Prospects: Transforming Social Assistance in Ontario.”
Under the proposed new program, welfare benefits would be based on a standard rate for all single adults that would be adjusted for those sharing accommodations. The rate would be based on a formula that balances the competing needs of adequacy; fairness between those on assistance and low-wage earners; and financial incentive to work. And over time, increases would reflect the differences in living costs across Ontario.
In addition to the standard rate, a disability supplement for those who meet the current definition of disability under ODSP, as well as a children’s and sole-support parent’s supplement, would be available through social assistance until the new system is fully implemented, the report recommends.
Until the new disability benefit is available outside welfare, people with disabilities who get jobs would be allowed to keep a portion of their disability welfare supplement, the report adds.
“Like most of us, people with disabilities have a strong desire to work,” the report says.
“However, given the financial disincentive represented by the lack of a disability benefit outside social assistance to help cover the cost of living with a disability, many low-income people with disabilities simply cannot afford to leave the program,” it adds.
The new simplified rate structure would give case workers more time to support recipients’ transition to employment, the commissioners say. Meantime, the province would partner with corporate leaders to champion the hiring of people with disabilities and generate awareness and support for more inclusive workplaces.
Although the report acknowledges the transformation will take time, it urges Queen’s Park to move quickly to improve financial support for people on welfare.
The commissioners are calling for an immediate $100-per-month increase to $699 for single able-bodied adults — the lowest current rate category — as a “down payment on adequacy.” That amount would become the new standard rate upon which the integrated program would be built.
The rate increase would cost $770 million, but the commissioners say at least $430 million of that would be found through administrative savings and the elimination of the Special Diet Allowance and the ODSP Work-Related Benefit, which would be offset by other changes to the program.
The remaining $340 million needed is less than 5 per cent of the total program costs but crucial “to begin to address adequacy at the lowest level … buy change and create momentum in the transformation of social assistance,” the report notes.
Other first steps include increasing financial resilience by allowing everyone applying for welfare to keep more assets — up to $6,000 for individuals and up to $7,500 for couples. Currently, only people on ODSP are allowed to keep this amount.
Individuals would also be allowed to have up to $60,000 in long-term savings such as RRSPs, RESPs and to keep their primary automobile, regardless of the value.
In addition, everyone on welfare would be allowed to earn up to $200 per month without deductions and keep 50 cents of every subsequent dollar earned until their earnings exceed their welfare cheque. Now, 50 cents of every dollar is clawed back.
Under the reforms, child support would be treated the same as income. Single parents would no longer be compelled to seek child support and those who receive it would be allowed to keep 50 per cent instead of losing it all in claw backs.
Changing the definition of a spouse from three months cohabitation to one year would reflect income tax laws, the commissioners add.
The report calls for a program that moves away from a culture of surveillance to one of support for everyone on social assistance, including the disabled, to maximize their potential.
To ensure the new program is accountable to Ontarians, the report calls for provincial standards, clear outcomes and performance measures with annual reporting from both municipalities and the province.
A new provincial commissioner of social assistance would be appointed to drive change, work with municipalities, establish performance measures and tack progress. Annual progress reports from both municipalities and the province would ensure public accountability, the report says.
Who’s on social assistance*
Ontario Works (OW)
- 477,339 individuals or about 3.6 per cent of the population
- 171,867 are children
- Average age: 36
- 60 per cent of cases are singles
- 30 per cent are single parents
- 3 per cent are couples without children
- 8 per cent are couples with children
- About 75 per cent of children are in families led by single parents
Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP)
- 415,338 individuals or about 3.1 per cent of the population
- 43 per cent of applicants have a physical disability, 39 per cent have a mental disability, 18 per cent have a developmental disability
- About 60 per cent of new applicants in 2009-10 were suffering from mental illness
- 59,403 are children
- Average age: 46
- 77 per cent are singles
- 9 per cent are single parents
- 8 per cent are couples without children
- 6 per cent are couples with children
- Just over half of children are in families led by single parents
Social Justice Reporter