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Social Assistance Review

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Poverty Free Ontario Reminds Wynne of Her Commitment to Social Justice

In a letter to Premier‐designate Kathleen Wynne, Poverty Free Ontario encourages Wynne to fulfill her promise as the “social justice” premier.

Click HERE to read the full letter sent to Kathleen Wynne on behalf of Poverty Free Ontario and anti-poverty advocates representing groups and organizations in more than 20 communities across the province.

The mission of Poverty Free Ontario is to eliminate divided communities in which too many adults and children live in chronic states of material hardship, poor health and social exclusion. An Ontario free of poverty will be reflected in healthy, inclusive communities with a place of dignity for everyone and the essential conditions of well‐being for all.

PFO Bulletin #10 – Final Report on the Social Assistance Review: Limited Improvements, Serious Concerns

Commissioners Frances Lankin and Munir Sheikh released their long-awaited report Brighter Prospects: Transforming Social Assistance in Ontario on October 24, raising both hopes and anxieties in the community that received it. The Report proposes a major restructuring of social assistance, funded mostly by eliminating existing benefit programs in the short-term and proposed internal administrative savings in the longer roll-out, including a projected decrease in the disability caseload from 5% to 3% a year.

Poverty Free Ontario (PFO) and its community partners across the province have consistently advocated to the Ontario Government for an end to deep poverty for people on social assistance and an end to working poverty for low income earners.  PFO has urged the Commissioners to support those commitments since they assumed their task in early 2011.  While long-term social assistance system reform may be undertaken, PFO has stressed the urgency of implementing immediate action to improve the material living conditions of low income people, given that research shows they have a significantly higher incidence of death, suicides and chronic illnesses than the population as a whole (Wellesley Institute, 2008).

The Commissioners have recognized that current benefit levels to people on social assistance are inadequate and recommend a rate increase that, if implemented now, would provide some improvement in the living conditions of social assistance recipients.  The overall thrust of their report fails, however, to address the structural conditions that maintain currently high poverty levels in Ontario, and, in a number of ways, presents serious risk to the most vulnerable part of the social assistance caseload, persons with disabilities.

Several Income Improvements Proposed

There is no question that the Commissioners’ mandate was undermined by Government action in recent years to cut and reduce programs and benefits to people on social assistance (PFO Media Release, Oct. 25). These Government measures were severe enough that the Commissioners’ resolve to continue their work is admirable.  Since the 2011 provincial election, an austerity agenda introduced via the Drummond Report and the 2012 Ontario Budget has only further constrained the climate for serious positive change.

The Commissioners do recommend some measures that could make some difference in the lives of social assistance recipients if implemented now.

  • The Commissioners state that current benefit levels are inadequate to meet daily living costs and acknowledge the work of the Put Food in the Budget campaign (PFIB) and municipal council support across the province in calling for an immediate $100/month increase to all single adult recipients as a “down payment” on adequacy.[1]  At a cost of $770 million, this would be the first real income increase for people on social assistance since the 22% rate cuts in 1995. Regrettably, the Commissioners recommend that part of the cost of that increase be paid for by eliminating most of the Special Diet Allowance (SDA, $200 million) and a work-related benefit for people with disabilities ($30 million).
  • The Commissioners propose that recipients be allowed $200 in an earnings exemption above their monthly benefit before a withdrawal rate of 50% on additional earnings applies. With existing federal and provincial tax credits ($1,076) and the maximum earnings allowance ($2,400), a single adult’s annual income could reach $11,776, still in deep poverty at only 60% of the income poverty line, but a significant increase over the current benefit level.
  • The Commissioners recognize that the creation of a single standard benefit rate can negatively affect the income position of certain parts of the caseload (disabled persons under different living conditions) and recommend “grandparenting” for these situations. This provision is explicitly not recommended, however, for disabled people on SDA, who have a higher incidence of medically-related food deficiencies.
  • The Commissioners propose raising the asset limits allowable for OW recipients to the same level as ODSP recipients ($6,000 for singles and $7500 for couples), and allowing up to $60,000 asset exemption for RESPs for the children of recipients.

The following summarizes PFO’s major concerns with respect to the Report’s provisions for major transformative and structural reform of social assistance.

Propose a Minimal Subsistence Standard for Adequacy

Although the Commissioners agree that adequacy is an issue for people on social assistance, PFO has serious concerns about their perspective and approach to adequacy in a “transformed and restructured’ system. They dismiss the Low Income Measure (LIM, 50% of median income) as the benchmark for adequacy and propose a new “Basic Measure of Adequacy” (BMA), which is a subsistence measure that returns to the charity standard of a bare minimum.

The Commissioners’ dismissal of the LIM as an income measure for adequacy is specious. LIM is a measure of income deficiencies.  Both the United Nations and the European Union recognize 50% of median income as a minimum level for low income people to meet their basic living conditions and to participate in community life.  The LIM is a measure of inadequacy, not just income.

The table following compares the proposed BMA for a single person and sole parent with one child compared to the Low Income Measure, which the Ontario Government adopted as its official income poverty line in its Poverty Reduction Strategy in 2008.

 

Recipient

 

Basic Measure of Adequacy

(Proxy for Ontario, 2011)

Low Income Measure (adjusted to 2011)

Official Ontario Income Poverty Line

 

BMA as Percent of Official Income Poverty Line (LIM)

Single Adult

$13,710

$19,490

70%

Single parent with child

$19,380

$27,286

71%

The proxy BMA for Ontario used by the Commissioners in their report would keep both a single person and a single parent with one child at about 70% of the LIM, Ontario’s official income poverty line.  While the BMA would alleviate the income situation of recipients from their current depth of poverty, as a long-term measure of adequacy it would still condemn them to lives of hardship in deep poverty below 80% of the LIM.

It is a serious concern that in converting social assistance into a system that measures recipients in terms of their “distance from the labour market”, the Commissioners have sacrificed the notion of the suffering and hardship experienced by their “distance from the poverty line”.  Surely, this is the true measure of minimal adequacy in terms of both employment earnings and income supports.

Risks in a Standard Rate with “Building Blocks”

The Commissioners propose a basic standard benefit rate for social assistance recipients modified for persons sharing living accommodations (86% of the combined standard rate) with income supplements for health, disability and sole support parenthood outside the social assistance system and available to all Ontarians on low incomes.

While the Commissioners’ wish to simplify the system is understandable and their consideration of the needs of low income working people is admirable, there are risks involved in this approach that should be recognized.  People on social assistance have often been denied access to benefits when they are made available to a broader population, such as the claw-backs that occurred with implementation of the National Child Benefit in the 1990s.  There is legitimate concern that adjusting the basic rate in a way that establishes a lower standard and includes supplements for certain conditions creates more opportunities for targeted cutting or for introducing supplements in a way that do not necessarily ensure families that the “building blocks” will leave them better off than when they received a benefit based on family size.  Notably, when the Ontario Child Benefit was introduced to “take children out of the social assistance system”, the Basic Needs Allowance for parents on social assistance was reduced by the same amount (Human Dignity for All presentation, slide 11, 2011).  The OCB then became the target for austerity in the 2012 Budget when the Government decided to delay its implementation for two years.

Safeguards will be required to ensure that the standard base rate does not become just a floor of inadequacy for a set of income supplements that may be subject to variable Government commitment to maintain.  This is one of the reasons that PFO and PFIB have always argued that the $100/month Healthy Food Supplement should be incorporated into the Basic Needs Allowance rather than be separately administered, which the Commissioners have adopted in their recommendation for the rate increase.

Institutionalizing Divisive Trade-offs Among Low income People

In PFO Bulletin #9, we expressed concern about the trade-offs that the Commissioners were proposing in their Discussion Paper (February 2012) for setting a benchmark for social assistance rates.  The Commissioners now propose to institutionalize these trade-offs in terms of finding a satisfactory balance among three objectives: adequacy, fairness between social assistance recipients and low income working people, and a financial incentive to work.

Although the Report recommends removing the distinctions between OW and ODSP recipients into one harmonized pool, it wishes to retain the separation between people on the system and the working poor, when both have the same interest – access to incomes allowing stable and decent living conditions.  The balancing “trade-offs” test not only perpetuates the myth that the interests of social assistance recipients and working poor people are in conflict with each other, but it would also institutionalize this division in the restructured and transformed social assistance system.  This approach in no way challenges the Government nor the larger public to assume a moral responsibility to commit to both benefit rates and minimum wages at levels that ensure decent living conditions for all people in the bottom 30% of incomes.

The discussion of the minimum wage as a “reference wage” for determining fairness also raises concern. Referring to the upcoming review of the minimum wage, the Report argues that changes in the minimum wage should be linked to “Ontario’s economic performance, labour market conditions, and earnings distribution.” PFO contends that a true benchmark of adequacy for low income earners is an hourly minimum wage ensuring that a full-time, full-year worker earns enough to live out of poverty.

PFO continues to call for Government to set a decent floor for living conditions for all low income people in Ontario, which means:

  1. Social assistance rates that bring all recipients above 80% of the official Ontario income poverty line (i.e. out of deep poverty);
  2. Raising the minimum wage to $12.50 by 2014 so that all full-time, full-year workers earn income that would bring them 10% above the poverty line.
  3. Setting the clear objective of creating labour market conditions and job opportunities that establish a “living wage” as the true benchmark of an inclusive, healthy and equitable society.

“Embracing Workfare”?

Commenting on the Social Assistance Review, Toronto Star columnist Martin Regg Cohn (October 25) writes that the Commissioners “have implicitly embraced the once controversial goal of workfare (where possible).”  This is a disturbing conclusion for a policy journalist to come to in his analysis of the recommendations of the Social Assistance Review.

PFO does not believe that the Commissioners have any resolve to compel social assistance recipients to work for their benefits at rates well below the minimum wage, which is the truest definition of workfare. Still, Regg Cohn’s commentary illustrates the clear thrust of the Report’s recommendations towards moving people aggressively off of social assistance and into the labour market, albeit with supports. Indeed, the clear benchmark for success for all recipients is to close or at least reduce their “distance from the labour market”.  They very clearly see labour force attachment as the primary route to social assistance reform.

PFO agrees that gainful employment is the preferred way for low income people to meet their living requirements and participate fully in community life when circumstances allow them to join the workforce.   There is a concern, however, that the Commissioners’ focus on employment overemphasizes reducing the social assistance caseload and associated costs rather than ensuring recipients move into stable, decent jobs. For example, the proposed performance and accountability measures for employment services provided by a mix of public, private and non-profit providers would emphasize caseload reductions and successful labour force attachment, which will require careful vigilance against “creaming” the most job-ready candidates and safeguards against short-term job placements that don’t hold.   Managing, monitoring and evaluating progress on moving recipients aggressively into employment may well consume much of the administrative savings that the Commissioners suggest will be generated by a transition from a “surveillance” model to pay for a highly individualized labour force attachment model.

The Commissioners acknowledge the poor job market and the prevalence of precarious versus sustainable employment opportunities in today’s economy.  They have established some key relationships with the business community and indicate the readiness of a number of corporate leaders to assist with promoting the hiring of people from the social assistance caseload, including persons with disabilities.  The Commissioners think that the restructured system in addition to supporting recipients with employment training and other services should also be more responsive to the needs and requirements of employers in preparing people for the job market.

Social assistance and an integrated employment and human services support system will be expected to ensure that individualized Pathways to Employment plans are prepared and implemented for all recipients. Responsiveness to the needs and requirements of the labour market as identified by employers is also expected at the same time as a panel of corporate leaders works to create understanding and readiness in the business community for hiring and employing people ready to leave social assistance.

A key question remains, however, with respect to the quality, stability and decency of the jobs that will be available to people ready to exit social assistance.  PFO wonders as well whether the engaged business community will be as ready to support measures of adequacy for people at the low end of the labour market. For example:

  • Would the business panel support a minimum wage at a level that would ensure a full-time, full-year worker earns an income that brings her/him out of poverty?
  • Would the panel promote and contribute to job creation that establishes “living wages” as the desirable standard for employment in any community?

Most Vulnerable at Highest Risk

It is not surprising that the ODSP Action Coalition, advocating for people with disabilities on social assistance, has expressed grave reservations about parts of the Social Assistance Review Report. PFO shares those concerns.

Integration and harmonization of systems always carries greater risks of lowering the bar of benefits to the lowest common denominator than raising those at the low end towards the higher end.  People on ODSP have been recognized as having higher living costs as a result of their limiting physical or mental conditions, which has been traditionally recognized in terms of a higher Basic Needs Allowance than people on Ontario Works.  Even when the Harris Government cut OW by 22% in 1995, it froze but did not cut the ODSP rate.

In terms of the impact of even the modest improvements that the Commissioners recommend in the short-term, the real costs would be borne by part of the ODSP caseload.  ODSP recipients would receive a disability supplement on top of the new standard rate so that they would not during transition to an integrated system be worse off than what they currently receive. But, it is proposed that the $100/month increase in the standard rate to all recipients be paid for partially ($200 million) out of the elimination of Special Needs Diet, which a higher proportion of persons with disabilities count on for medically necessary nutrition. Plus, another $30 million of the rate increase cost would come from elimination of a work related benefit to persons with disabilities.  The Commissioners explicitly recommend that these income losses not be avoided through supplements nor that current SDA users be grandparented to continue receiving their medical nutrition benefit ($100-$250/ month).  The net result for many ODSP recipients will be a significant reduction in monthly income.

With this start to social assistance reform, people on ODSP are well-advised to be cautious about how transformation of the system will improve their living conditions in the long run.  There are not many targets set in the Commissioners’ Report but one clear objective is to reduce the increase in the ODSP caseload from 5% to 3% a year and there are clear savings projections made from moving people with disabilities off of social assistance into employment.

This is a sensitive area, which the Commissioners acknowledge.  Many people with disabilities on the system want to and can work with support on a full-time or part-time basis.  But the aggressive push to labour market attachment raises anxieties about narrowing the definition of disability and unreasonable expectations that threaten the loss of eligibility should recipients show any reluctance or perceived “non-compliance” with the Pathways to Employment planning process.  Plus, there is some anxiety about transferring administration of the social assistance system to the municipal level, since ODSP has been administered at the provincial level.

In many ways, the most vulnerable part of the social assistance caseload is assuming the highest risks in the proposed transformation of the system.

Conclusion

In the end, the Commissioners’ Review is just a report. There remains no Government commitment to act on any of the recommendations including the urgently needed benefit increase. First responses from the Minister of Community and Social Services indicate no willingness to do anything about social assistance rates.

And, of course, the Ontario Legislature is prorogued, unlikely to sit again until mid-winter, and even then any meaningful Government business may well be delayed further by a provincial election.

The cynical promise of social assistance reform in the 2008 Poverty Reduction Strategy was betrayed by an interminable process to set up and undertake a review on which the Government shows no interest in acting.

Regardless of further debate about the long term shape of social assistance reform, the Commissioners have, at least, clearly acknowledged the community’s consistently expressed call for a significant increase in the social assistance rates to single adults by $100/month as well as a modified rate increase ($86/month) for recipients living together as a first step towards adequacy.

While the Provincial Parliament may not be in session, there is still a political moment to demand public declarations of support by the Opposition parties, Liberal candidates for the party leadership, and all MPP backbenchers for the immediate measures in the Commissioners’ Report that will alleviate the living conditions of people on social assistance. Specifically, that would be:

  1. The $100/month rate increase to single adults and the modified rate increase for recipients living together;
  2. The $200/month earnings exemption before benefit claw-backs; and
  3. Increasing the asset limits to $6,000 and $7,500 for singles and couples on social assistance respectively.

Contrary to the Commissioners’ recommendations, the community should insist that maintaining the SDA is critical to the health and well-being of many recipients, especially those with disabilities.

PFO joins other voices in the community and the labour movement in challenging the political claims of austerity that Ontario is without fiscal capacity to address deep poverty for those on social assistance and working poverty (PFO Bulletin #4). Revenue recovery through reversing tax cuts over the past decade remains the responsible political path for a just social order in Ontario.

For further information contact:

Peter Clutterbuck, SPNO Coordinator

(416) 653-7947   cell (416) 738-3228

pclutterbuck@spno.ca                                                                  Web site: www.povertyfreeontario.ca


[1] The $100 monthly increase would be added to the current standard base rate for single recipients now at $599. Two people sharing accommodation, whether related or not, would each receive 86% of the standard rate including the increase on the grounds that sharing accommodation should reduce their living expenses.

PDF version of Bulletin #10

Commissioners Show Constraints of Austerity Climate

For Immediate Release:

3:00 PM, Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Release of Final Report on the Social Assistance Review

Commissioners show constraints of austerity climate

Social Assistance Review Commissioners Frances Lankin and Munir Sheikh released their long awaited Final Report on the Ontario Social Assistance Review today.

Community advocates for serious and immediate social assistance reform can feel some sense of achievement that the Commissioners acknowledge that OW and ODSP rates are too low to enable recipients to have access to adequate nutritious food. The Commissioners acknowledge the position of the Put Food in the Budget campaign and recommend an immediate $100/month rate increase as a “down payment” on moving toward adequacy. Regrettably, they suggest that this be partly paid for by eliminating the $230 million Special Diet Allowance to recipients with medical conditions requiring certain nutrients for their health and well-being.

“Proposing a $100 a month increase to the single rate is encouraging and the Commissioners are very clear that rates need to move towards adequacy,” says Peter Clutterbuck, PFO Coordinator,”but why does this have to mean the elimination of the Special Diet allowance? In their other proposals for moving toward a new integrated system, the Commissioners recommend maintaining supplements and existing benefits to make sure recipients are not worse off during the transition period.”

The Commissioners propose more than 100 recommendations on all aspects of social assistance that will require careful community discussion.  The Commissioners attempt to outline a vision of a more simplified and coherent social assistance system. It is clear, however, that they felt the constraints of the austerity climate that the Ontario Government introduced with its 2012 budget.

Plus, the Commissioners had to work against the tide of the Ontario Government’s action in the last few years that has continued the austerity agenda of hunger and hardship directed at people on social assistance started by the Harris Government in the mid-nineties and has included the following measures:

  • Cutting the Basic Needs Allowance for single parents by $125 a month per child after introducing the Ontario Child Benefit (another clawback called “rate restructuring”);
  • Ending the clothing and back to school allowances for children on social assistance;
  • Cutting the real incomes of people on social assistance through reducing cost of living adjustments to half the rate of inflation in the last two provincial budgets;
  • Changing the medical conditions qualifying for the Special Diet Allowance so that thousands of social assistance recipients lost access to nutritious food critical to their health;
  • Withdrawing planned increases to the OCB for two years in the 2012 budget; and
  • Cutting the Community Start-Up and Maintenance funding to municipalities for people on social assistance.

Poverty Free Ontario (PFO) has maintained a consistent focus on the need for major structural reforms to end deep poverty (incomes falling below 80% of Ontario’s official income poverty measure) and to end working poverty (minimum wage level that brings a full-year- full-time earner out of poverty).

On first review of the Commissioners’ Report, PFO is dismayed that they discount Ontario’s official income poverty measure (i.e. Low Income Measure – 50% of median income). Not only was the LIM set as Ontario’s official income measure in its 2008 Poverty Reduction Strategy, but the LIM is also internationally recognized as the income poverty measure of the United Nations and the European Union.  Notably, the proposed subsistence line set by the Commissioners’ “Basic Measure of Adequacy” would condemn a single person or a two person family to a life of deep poverty at 70% of Ontario’s official income poverty level.

Another major concern that requires further investigation is the proposed integration of Ontario Works and the Ontario Disabilities Support Program into a unified system. While the Commissioners show some care in recommending that persons with disabilities should be in no worse off income position while this transition is made, the recommendations reflect a push towards the labour market for persons with disabilities that must be watched vigilantly to avoid workfare strategies, especially given the Commissioners’ recommendation of integrating ODSP and OW administration at the municipal level.

PFO will be consulting with its community partners across Ontario in the coming days to more fully develop its response to the Commissioners’ Report.

Poverty Free Ontario is an initiative of the Social Planning Network of Ontario (SPNO) working with local community groups across the province www.povertyfreeontario.ca

-30-

Media Contact:
Peter Clutterbuck, SPNO,
416-653-7947 and 416-738-3228
pclutterbuck@spno.ca

PDF version of media release

Submissions in Response to Social Assistance Review Discussion Paper #2

The Social Assistance Review Commissioners asked for any submissions in response to their Discussion paper #2 by March 16, 2012.

Poverty Free Ontario has no central coordinating resources to enable any organizing around this but we did provide a PFO Bulletin and Call to Action resulting from our last cross-community tele-call in February.

A number of communities have used these materials and their own local discussions to get their views in, all very consistent with the conversation that we had in February. Below are links to the submissions received by PFO. (Updated March 28, 2012)

Putting a Face to Social Assistance
by the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NZx9PUahF2M

Call for Cross-Community Action on Social Assistance Review Discussion Paper #2

People and organizations in communities across Ontario who are concerned about the intolerable living conditions of recipients of Ontario Works (OW) and the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) are urged to send a message to Commissioners Frances Lankin and Munir Sheikh regarding their Discussion Paper #2 released on February 2, 2012.

PFO Bulletin #9 accompanying this call to action offers an analysis which all are encouraged to use in their communications to the Commissioners. A meeting/tele-conference of 35 PFO leaders in 19 communities on Feb. 10 identified the following questions and key messages as priorities for communication to the Commissioners:

  • Why are the Commissioners not hearing clearly expressed community voices for significant rate increases? Discussion Paper #2 does not reflect the strength of feeling nor urgency for action on OW and ODSP benefit levels that condemn recipients to chronic conditions of hunger and hardship. Four out of five submissions recommended income adequacy as a priority. Sixteen city councils representing 3,000,000 Ontarians passed resolutions supporting a $100/month Healthy Food Supplement, which was not referenced at all in Discussion Paper #2 and received one short line in a secondary document on what the Commissioners heard in their consultations. The credibility of the reform exercise is undermined when such clearly expressed community input is ignored.
  • Why do the Commissioners continue to pit the interests of social assistance recipients against those of the working poor in their discussion on an “appropriate benefit structure”? The Discussion Paper perpetuates the historical divisiveness of pitting the interests of the “deserving” poor (low wage workers) against the “undeserving” poor (social assistance recipients). Focusing on the need to balance the “benefit structure” so that OW/ODSP recipients do not receive more in income and services than low wage earners consigns both groups to ongoing poverty – the OW/ODSP recipients struggling to get out of deep poverty (below 80% of LIM) and the full-time, full-year minimum wage earner still falling below the poverty line.  The Commissioners must be encouraged to recognize that, in terms of income adequacy, the interests of these two groups are joined. Social assistance rates must be raised starting now so that over several years no one is living in deep poverty. Simultaneously, additional minimum wage increases must be scheduled over the next two years so that by 2014 a full-time, full-year worker earns an annual income 10% above the poverty line ($12.50/hr).
  • Why do the Commissioners reinforce the myth that social assistance recipients need incentives to take work?  From chapter headings like “Reasonable Expectations” to repeated references to “incentives” for recipients to enter the labour market, the Discussion Paper keeps alive the unfair assumption that people on social assistance who can work prefer to stay on benefits.  It is easier to blame the victims of a poor job market than to challenge Government to create the conditions for the development and growth of decent, life sustaining jobs, which would benefit not only social assistance recipients but workers now struggling on poverty level wages.  What incentives does the Government need to meet the reasonable expectation that the economy and labour market should offer the opportunity and prosperity for all Ontarians?
  • Why do the Commissioners re-open the question of which income poverty measure should be used in social assistance reform? The Government clearly set the Low Income Measure (50% of median income) as Ontario’s official income poverty line in 2008, and LIM is internationally recognized and used by the United Nations. This issue is resolved and should not be used to further confuse, delay or distract from urgently needed action.
  • Why will the Commissioners not champion the needs of Ontario’s most vulnerable in the face of austerity and retrenchment? The Commissioners have missed an opportunity to clearly establish and express a case to Ontario’s political leadership for protecting OW and ODSP recipients and championing their interests in the face of the looming austerity agenda promised in the upcoming Drummond Commission Report.  People on OW and ODSP have been living under austerity since the 22% rate cuts in 1995 and can endure no further assaults.  No other group had its income cut so severely in the 1990s without any restoration at all since. Cost of living adjustments by the current Government since 2003 have not produced increases in the real income of recipients and, in recent years, 1% cost of living adjustments have fallen behind the provincial rate of inflation.   Social assistance recipients have been subject to almost 20 years of austerity and need a policy champion with the ear of Government as a bulwark against the wave of new cuts and retrenchment about to crash down.

Responses to the Commission’s Discussion Paper #2 can be submitted in the following ways:

  • By email at socialassistancereview@ontario.ca
  • Completing a form (150 word limit) on the Commissioners’ web site at www.socialassistancereview.ca
  • Submission can be mailed or faxed to:
    Commission for the Review of Social Assistance in Ontario
    2 Bloor Street West
    4th Floor, Suite 400
    Toronto, ON
    M4W 3E2
    FAX 416-212-0413

PDF version of Call for Cross-Community Action

PFO Bulletin #9: Social Assistance Review Discussion Paper 2: Missed Opportunity, Even Backsliding, as Austerity Agenda Looms

The Social Assistance Review Commissioners issued a low‐key release of their “Options” paper on its web site late Thursday, February 2 (see http://www.socialassistancereview.ca/commission‐publications ). Although promoted for months as an “Options Paper”, it is actually framed as Discussion Paper 2: Approaches for Reform. While various ways to go for reform of social assistance in the long‐term are presented in a technical policy terms, the paper lacks any clear, compelling overall direction to end poverty for social assistance recipients.

Questions and problems raised are barely advanced from the first Discussion Paper of last fall and, on some issues such as establishing a poverty measure for adequacy in benefit levels, the Paper actually moves the process backwards.

The Commissioners ask for further input on their discussion questions from the community by March 16. Their final report with recommendations is targeted for release in June 2012.

This interminable reform process, started almost more than three years ago with the Government’s Poverty Reduction Strategy in December 2008, offers no hope to people on OW and ODSP for any short- or even intermediate-term relief from their current intolerable living conditions. There is no compelling vision or clear overall goals proposed for ending deep poverty (Deep poverty refers to people living below 80% of the Low Income Measure – LIM).

There is nothing in the Discussion paper which speaks about the urgency for action to our political representatives, policymakers, the public nor the low income community and its supporters. Too many adults and children in Ontario continue to experience monthly cycles of chronic hunger and hardship which must be addressed now and cannot await grand plans for reform in the distant future.

Most alarming about this failure to capture the attention of our political leadership and the general public about this social injustice is the looming austerity agenda of the upcoming Drummond Commission report, which promises to suck up all the policy oxygen in the coming months and can hold only more misery for the most vulnerable among us. People on social assistance have been experiencing austerity since the 22% cut to rates in 1995, along with limited cost of living increases since 2003. The Commissioners provide no minimal bulwark against the assault on the social sector about to come down. Low income people lack a policy champion in their time of greatest need.

Main Areas Covered in Discussion Paper 2

Approaches for Reform reports out in the following sections:

Chapter 1: Reasonable Expectations and Necessary Supports to Employment. Moving social assistance recipients into the workforce is established as the primary way to get people out of poverty. This section concentrates on the need for more effective assessment and case management systems and employment support services to help social assistance recipients find and keep jobs. Pre- and post‐employment services across the different jurisdictions need to be better integrated and particular support considerations are necessary for people with disabilities who can work. Mechanisms for better communications and connections with employers must also be set up. Three different administrative approaches are proposed to create a more integrated employment services system.

Chapter 2: Appropriate Benefit Structure. The Commissioners indicate that they wish to meet three objectives in their recommendations; (1) Benefit adequacy; (2) Fairness between social assistance recipients and low income workers; and (3) Benefit levels that will maintain incentives to work. Most of the chapter devotes itself to the trade‐offs of different approaches to achieve balance among these three objectives. The paper contends that this means determining what a reasonable adequacy measure is indicating that there is no “widely accepted” (p. 24) poverty measure among the three existing choices (Market Basket measure [MBM], Low Income Cut-Off [LICO], and Low Income Measure [LIM]). A second consideration is how to set a “reference wage” fair to working poor Ontarians as the benchmark for when a recipient would leave assistance to enter the labour market. Finally, the paper contends that a reasonable “benefit withdrawal rate” is necessary to make sure that recipients entering the labour market have no unfair advantage over low wage workers who may not have access to supplemental benefits (e.g. access to free special health benefits). The Paper does acknowledge that the nature and condition of the labour market are challenges to achieving a satisfactory trade-off. Several proposed approaches to make the trade-offs are offered in the Paper. A concluding section addresses particular challenges in the benefit structure for people with disabilities on ODSP, who have extraordinary daily living costs.

Chapter 3: Easier to Understand. Complexity in the social assistance system confusing both to recipients and workers needs to be addressed. Complexity must be managed without sacrificing accountability to the taxpaying public. The Commissioners suggest consideration of moving from a “surveillance” and “monitoring” model to a more targeted “audit‐based” and “risk management” approach that would ensure compliance with system requirements (pp. 38-39). The Paper also gives attention to the treatment of assets, which affects the financial resilience of recipients trying to make the transition to work. Several approaches are proposed for relaxing limits on asset accumulation and a clear suggestion that there be one total asset limit set rather than limits designated by different asset classifications.

Chapter 4: Viable over the Long term. This short section (pp. 45-48) raises the question of whether (a) to continue the separate delivery of OW and ODSP; (b) to set up a “one‐stop delivery model that would integrate Ontario Works and ODSP at the local level” (p. 46); or (c) to have municipalities administer case management and employment services while the province delivers the income support component.

Chapter 5: An Integrated Ontario Position on Income Security. This chapter addresses the need for achieving greater compatibility and complementarity between social assistance and other service and support programs primarily administered under federal jurisdiction.

Chapter 6: First Nations and Social Assistance. In this chapter, the Commissioners report on holding separate consultations with members of First Nations communities and OW administrators. They indicate that these discussions informed their overall approaches to reform but that issues unique to the needs of First Nations communities are also addressed in this chapter. First Nations people see social assistance as a “social and economic trap” (p. 54), creating barriers to community economic development. New relationships must be developed between the federal and provincial governments and First Nations communities need to have more control and autonomy over how assistance is provided. Current agreements do not adequately cover First Nations members with disabilities, creating accessibility problems with respect to ODSP. Greater First Nations control over and access to employment services and special supports such as addiction services are also required.

Chapter 7: How to Provide Input. The Commissioners invite responses to the discussion questions provided at the end of each section by March 16, 2012 via the web site or email or by postal mailing (p. 61).

Missed Opportunity to Raise a Sense of Urgency for Action

By keeping their sights firmly fixed on long‐term overall reform of the social assistance system, the Commissioners fail to convey any sense of urgency about addressing deep poverty in the short- to intermediate-term and frame no clear goal in that regard either. Any hope for concentrated public attention on the situation of the poorest part of the province’s population is at grave risk with the low-key release of this report just several weeks before the Drummond Commission comes down with its promised austerity agenda.

No specific reference is made to the implications or prospects of the Drummond Report for people living in deep poverty despite its likely implications for the lower end of the labour market, which the Commissioners propose as the best route out of poverty for OW and ODSP recipients. A Paper that argues the need for better integration and coordination of services and benefits among all jurisdictions seems oblivious to the political and economic environment in which its policy approaches are being placed.

That is why the Commissioners should have extended themselves beyond a “policy consultant’s” role in this Paper to advocate for attention and concern that any forthcoming austerity agenda not create further hardship and misery for people living in poverty. The Commissioners have enough ammunition to so engage the debate prior to the Drummond Report’s release. They report hearing from 2,000 people in consultations across the province, receiving 700 written submissions. Since 2008, the Social Planning Network of Ontario/Poverty Free Ontario has visited 25-30 communities six to eight times each and knows the kinds of stories that the Commissioners have heard from low income people and the agencies and workers who try to support them with few resources.

People on social assistance and all living in poverty have told their stories and sorely need a policy champion to draw attention to their interests in the face of the austerity agenda about to come down.

Failing to do so in this interim report and the low‐key, under the radar release may well risk the relevance of the entire reform process as other forces will dominate the policy scene when the Commissioners’ final report is due in June.

Respecting Community Voices Calling for a Healthy Food Supplement

In the supplementary report on What We Heard also released with the Discussion Paper, the Commissioners offer an account of the messages received in the community consultations and submissions. SPNO/PFO’s own analysis of the written submissions posted on the Commissioners’ web site as of December 31, 2011 shows that income adequacy is the primary concern of proponents for reform.1

Four out of five posted submissions (79%) identified income inadequacy as an issue to be addressed in the Social Assistance Review, making a variety of recommendations to improve the adequacy of social assistance rates. Of all issues addressed in the submissions posted on the Commissioners’ web site, income adequacy was the most common area of concern and suggestions.
Overall, the resounding message is that rates are unquestionably low, with 63% of all submissions, and 70% of submissions addressing income adequacy recommending social assistance rate increases to cover the real costs of living.

Over and over again, submissions detail that rates are too low to provide for decent, affordable housing and a healthy diet. Forty-four per cent (44%) of all submissions recommend increasing shelter allowances to better reflect the full cost of decent housing. Of the submissions addressing income adequacy, 14% advocate for a full housing benefit.

Thirty per cent (30%) of all submissions advocate for a rate increase to provide for food and nutrition. Eleven per cent (11%) of the submissions addressing income adequacy recommend the immediate allocation of a $100 a month Healthy Food Supplement.

Notably, the Commissioners’ Discussion Paper suggests that one approach to an appropriate benefit structure could be a housing benefit available to all low income Ontarians to “ease the challenge of ensuring fairness as between people on social assistance and low‐income earners” and “[s]ince it would also help people who are struggling with housing costs but not receiving social assistance, it could help reduce the number of people who need to seek social assistance” (p. 29).

The emphasis on “fairness” between social assistance recipients and working poor people is problematic and divisive as the next section of this Bulletin discusses. Poverty Free Ontario has previously pointed out that a housing benefit that does not provide full coverage and protect food money again relegates social assistance recipients to the end of the line when it comes to meeting basic daily living costs.

Current housing benefit models target reaching only 200,000 low income people out of the 1,689,000 living in poverty (PFO Bulletins #2 and #8 at http://www.povertyfreeontario.ca/category/bulletin/).

Even a partial housing benefit is not designed and ready for implementation with any degree of dispatch. While a full housing benefit may be part of long‐tern reform, more immediate options require serious consideration and implementation.

Although the need for income increases for access to healthy food was clearly expressed in submissions to the Commissioners, including a Healthy Food Supplement, the Discussion Paper makes no reference to this as an option. The accompanying document What we Heard, offers one short acknowledgement: “There was support for the proposal to provide a monthly $100 healthy food supplement for all adults receiving Ontario Works or ODSP“ (p.18).

The Discussion Paper’s discounting of a major proposal widely supported and consistently voiced across the province since 2009 does not adequately respect community input. Further, the Healthy Food Supplement is the only income adequacy recommendation that has received official endorsement by municipalities across the province. Sixteen municipalities across Ontario have passed resolutions calling for the implementation of the $100 a month Healthy Food Supplement.2 A recently passed resolution by the City of Kingston calling for the immediate introduction of the Healthy Food Supplement, also adopted and forwarded to Premier McGuinty by the City of Belleville, notes the need for urgent action by stating “inadequate benefit levels lead to monthly cycles of chronic hunger among recipients creating health consequences with both personal and economic costs to us all.”

An appeal with this level of consistent support from communities, public health units and municipalities across this province and growing since the Social Assistance Reform Commissioners started their reform process merits more serious consideration than the Discussion Paper affords it.

Going Backwards on the Official Measure for Adequacy

It is unfathomable why Approaches to Reform re‐opens the debate on what is a reasonable official poverty measure in its discussion on an appropriate benefit structure. Claiming ‘the absence of agreed‐upon benchmarks for adequacy” (p. 24), the Discussion Paper introduces the three measures currently used nationally – Low income Cut‐Offs (LICO), Low income Measure (LIM), and Market Basket Measure (MBM) – contending that “[n]one of these is widely accepted as a poverty measure” (p. 24).

This is remarkable, given that the Ontario Government has already set the LIM as the poverty measure in its Poverty Reduction Strategy and that this whole Social Assistance Review process emerges from that Poverty Reduction Strategy. Further, the LIM is well‐established internationally by the United Nations and the European Union.3

Poverty Free Ontario hopes that re‐opening a discussion about which poverty measure to use has nothing to do with the unfavourable comparison of the LIM to the other two measures in relation to current benefit levels as shown in Appendix B (i.e. current rates show individuals and recipients in different family sizes in deeper poverty when the LIM is used).

Getting the LIM established as the Ontario Government’s primary measure of poverty in the 2008 Poverty Reduction Strategy was a major achievement for the advocacy community at the time. The issue was resolved then. The Social Assistance Review hardly advances the policy discussion by re‐opening it now just before it makes its final recommendations. This is moving social assistance reform backwards.

Adequacy Framed as an Issue of Balance between the Expectations of Recipients and Workers

Approaches to Reform addresses the issue of adequacy in terms of the “Appropriate Benefit Structure”. Adequacy in benefit levels has, of course, been the main thrust of Poverty Free Ontario, given our travels to communities around the province since 2007 and exposure to stories of chronic conditions of hunger and hardship told by recipients and the people who work with them.

In launching their discussion on adequacy, the Commissioners offer some hope that the issue of decent living conditions will frame this debate and their proposed solutions. The Commissioners report on the great disparity between the costs of basic necessities and benefit levels for individuals and families reported by the Ottawa Public Health Department. The Commissioners state: “We heard from many people that the benefit structure should more closely reflect the cost of living, including the cost of nutritious food, secure housing and community participation” (p. 20).

The Paper, however, quickly narrows the discussion from adequacy in terms of what people need to live with some measure of decency and dignity to the tension between what social assistance recipients should expect and what low wage earners will accept as fair in relation to their own low incomes. The Discussion Paper misses the opportunity to reflect broad community concern expressed in the consultation period about inadequacy in both social assistance rates and minimum wage levels. The “fairness” discussion shifts the focus to relationships within the low income community (i.e. a somewhat sanitized debate about the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor). This approach in no way challenges the Government nor the larger public to assume a moral responsibility to commit to both benefit rates and minimum wages at levels that ensure decent living conditions for all people in the bottom 30% of incomes.

The Discussion Paper hinges the adequacy discussion on establishing a satisfactory balance among the following “trade-offs”:

  1. an agreed upon measure for adequacy (an already resolved issue as indicated earlier in this Bulletin);
  2. a “reference wage” for low income workers that social assistance rates should remain below; and
  3. a “benefit withdrawal rate” that avoids giving social assistance recipients any advantage over low income workers as they enter the labour market.

Poverty Free Ontario does not see these issues as “trade-offs” for addressing poverty in this province. Rather they are matters demanding that Government set a decent floor for living conditions for all low income people in Ontario, which means:

  1. Setting a schedule for achieving adequacy by raising social assistance benefit levels over a reasonable amount of time so that no recipient is living below 80% of LIM (i.e. ending deep poverty in the province) and reducing the general poverty rate to below 4% by 2020. Of course, PFO also supports the position of the Put Food in the Budget initiative that the path to adequacy be commenced with the introduction of the $100 a month Healthy Food Supplement.
  2. Raising the minimum wage to $12.50 by 2014 so that all full‐time, full‐year workers earn income that would bring them 10% above the poverty line (minimal “reference wage”).
  3. Setting the clear objective of creating labour market conditions and job opportunities that establish a “living wage” as the true benchmark of an inclusive, healthy and equitable society (standard “reference wage”).

The unfortunate thrust of Chapter 2: Appropriate Benefit Structure is to perpetuate the myth that the interests of social assistance recipients and working poor people are in conflict with each other. Framing the adequacy discussion as an issue of fairness within the low income community is divisive and misleading.

Rather, their interests are joined in expecting a significantly raised bar for all low income people and demanding fairness and justice from a society that has structured the economy and social provision in a way that excludes and contains people struggling in the bottom third of the income scale. This is the constructive approach that the Commissioners could champion in their reform proposals rather than reinforcing past and current policy frameworks that pit social assistance recipients against working poor Ontarians.

Re-directing “Reasonable Expectations”

The Discussion Paper establishes up front that reform hinges on the “reasonable expectations” that as many social assistance recipients as possible participate in the workforce. The first two sentences of Chapter 1 state the driving force for the Commissioners review: “The government has identified employment as a key route for individuals and families to escape poverty. We agree that one of the best ways to help people to move out of poverty is to help them find work” (p. 5). The persistence of working poverty in Ontario even during periods of strong economic growth belies this glib assertion.

In our experience travelling to communities across the province, we know those on OW and ODSP who can work want to do so but there is great difficulty in getting that firm foothold in the current labour market. The vast majority of recipients hold “reasonable expectations” of a better life enabled by securing good jobs with decent wages, and are hardly motivated to remain in deep poverty or even just hovering at or slightly above the poverty line.

Poverty Free Ontario contends that there should also be a “reasonable expectation” for the provincial government to provide social assistance benefits at a level that allows recipients to meet the basic costs of the necessities of life and to live with some measure of health and dignity. Further with regard to low wage workers, there should be “reasonable expectations” that:

  1. The provincial government ensure that the basic minimum wage enables an earner working full‐year, full-time to live above the poverty line;
  2. Employers recognize that in addition to meeting the economic test of a fair return on capital for conducting a successful business, that they also have a responsibility to meet the “social test” of paying a basic minimum wage that assures an employee working full‐year, full-time lives above poverty; and
  3. Both government and the private sector recognize that the route to economic revitalization lies not in low and minimum wage structures but in employment based on ‘living wages” and decent working conditions that will foster not only a healthy and productive workforce but will also stimulate and sustain economic recovery by creating stronger consumer demand for goods and services.

Conclusion

The social assistance reform process drags on as any momentum offered by the Ontario Government’s Poverty Reduction Strategy recedes into distant memory. The Strategy did nothing for adults on social assistance when released in 2008, except promise a reform process that would address their intolerable living conditions.

That process took more than a year to initiate, and by the time terms of reference were framed and the Commissioners were appointed, it was 2011 with an eighteen month study process before a final report in mid-2012. After that, who knows how long before any serious implementation of the final report’s recommendations will be undertaken.

Meanwhile, Ontario has reached unprecedented poverty levels and the real incomes of people on social assistance have not even kept up with the rate of inflation over the last two years. There is more than enough evidence that tolerating poverty is harmful to the health and well-being of social assistance recipients and to community health in general.

We need continuing strong community advocacy alongside the voices of low income people, even more so as the austerity agenda looms. But, we also need policy champions with the ear of government to not only work on the future design of a more effective social assistance system, but also to propose specific and immediate action that will begin to address the hunger and hardship that recipients are barely enduring now.

Some clear and compelling messages in this regard must be sent to the Commissioners as they enter the last phase of their work.


Notes

  1. SPNO/PFO wishes to express its gratitude to Nicole Gagliardi, York University student in social planning, who volunteered her time to review the written submissions to the Commissioners posted to the web site and prepared the first draft of this section of this Bulletin. The Commissioners indicate that they received 700 written submissions. As of December 2011, 183 were posted to the web site, which would seem to be an adequate sample in any case for the conclusions drawn in this section.
  2. Municipal resolutions in support of the Healthy Food Supplement have been passed by the following City Councils: Belleville, Cambridge, Cornwall, Durham Region, Fort Erie, Hamilton, Kingston, Niagara Region, North Bay, Oxford County, Parry Sound, Port Colborne, Sarnia, St. Catharines, Wainfleet, and York Region.
  3. LIM 50 is the official Ontario income poverty measure, i.e. poverty is designated as having an income below 50% of the median income. LIM 50 is also the poverty measure adopted by the United Nations. The income poverty measure of the European Union is LIM 60, i.e. poverty is indicated at income levels below 60% of median income.

PDF Version of PFO Bulletin #9

Commission for the Review of Social Assistance Releases Approaches for Reform

The Commission has released Discussion Paper 2: Approaches for Reform. You can respond to the paper online through the Workbook or by sending in a submission.

The Commission has summarized the feedback received in response to the first discussion paper in What We Heard: A Summary of Discussions on Social Assistance. We encourage you to read the summary as a companion to the second discussion paper.

Submissions to the Social Assistance Review Commission

Below are links to submissions made by communities to the Social Assistance Review Commission

How to improve Ontario’s social assistance system

In Greater Sudbury, the community came together to discuss the questions posed by the Commissioners.  A robust conversation that included recipients of social assistance, those who deliver the benefits and community agency staff who work supporting those who try to live on social assistance resulted in several recommendations to the commission.  Organizers speak with CBC staff. Click the link below to hear the interview:

http://www.cbc.ca/morningnorth/past-episodes/2011/08/24/how-to-improve-ontarios-social-assistance-system/

Guelph residents weigh in on welfare reform

GUELPH — At a time when conservative politicians from London to Washington, D.C., are slashing social services to address spiralling debt and unemployment, Ontario is looking at ways to strengthen social assistance.

About 100 local recipients and providers of social services packed a church gymnasium in Guelph on Tuesday to imagine a better, more efficient welfare system.

Event host Daniel Moore, executive director of Family and Children’s Services of Guelph and Wellington, was impressed to see people who receive welfare mingling with those who administer it. “It’s pretty amazing, actually,” he said.

There were short speeches from three Guelph residents including a mother and daughter who have relied on welfare.

Tina Brophy said she was a child of privilege before drugs and an early pregnancy ruined her prospects. “It’s a quick and slippery slope down to the bottom, and I landed with a thud,” she said. “I became a hunter-gatherer.”

Brophy said an immediate $100 supplement for healthy food would help “make hunting and gathering a thing of the past” in the province. As of late last year, more than 830,000 Ontarians were receiving social assistance through either Ontario Works or the Ontario Disability Support Program.

Most of the Tuesday forum was devoted to roundtable discussions on four aspects of welfare reform: rules; assets and benefits; education, employment services and training; and the future of social assistance.

At one table, volunteer facilitator Lisa Needham led a discussion of assets and benefits while Cynthia Bragg, a teacher, social worker and disability support recipient, took point-form notes on a flip chart.

“I’m hoping they can make a more efficient, comprehensive system, and to help people get off of it,” Bragg said.

The group, which included housing activist Alan Pickersgill, artist James Gordon, veteran Onward Willow volunteer Wanda Lucier and Salvation Army caseworker Lloyd Hetherington, came up with three key suggestions: reduce the demoralizing clawback of benefits that kicks in when welfare recipients start working; stop making people drain their bank accounts in order to get assistance; and raise the assistance rates “to give people a level of dignity beyond the barest level of survival.”

They also took exception to a solution proposed by the provincial commissioners where social assistance rates would be kept low “to ensure that people are better off working.”

“The optics of that are awful,” Gordon said. “Let’s make it worse for you, so that a job seems better. That’s insulting.”

At another table, participants discussed ways to improve provincial employment services. Marian Garner, who helps people transition into the workplace with Royal City Christian Life Centre in downtown Guelph, suggested case workers get a bonus for keeping people employed. Deb Cripps of the Guelph Food Bank said employers need incentives to hire people on disability, since they are viewed as costly and risky.

Feedback from the forum convened by the Guelph and Wellington Task Force for Poverty Elimination will be delivered on Sept. 1 to the Commission for the Review of Social Assistance in Ontario. Comments can also be provided through an online survey at www.gwpoverty.ca.

Next June, commissioners will publish recommendations based on their findings.

Poverty task force co-ordinator Randalin Ellery said she hopes the review will trigger meaningful reform. “I think there’s just widespread acknowledgement that the system isn’t working as it is, and we need to make it better,” she said.

Moore credited the task force with sparking dialogue on the plight of low-income people in the county. “It seems like there’s now a forum where we can talk about these types of complex issues,” he said.

Asked to reflect on the riots that erupted in England’s suburbs nearly two weeks ago following deep cuts to social services in the country, Moore said communication must have broken down.

If people don’t come together and speak with one voice about the challenges they face, and if governments don’t listen and respond, things fall apart, he said.

dhalfnight@guelphmercury.com

http://www.guelphmercury.com/news/local/article/579553–guelph-residents-weigh-in-on-welfare-reform

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