There is an urgent need to restore public respect for people who rely on social assistance as their primary source of income.
This means that we must stop using language that demeans and stereotypes people on social assistance (e.g. “dependent”, “passive”, “lazy”).
We must stop referring to the “welfare wall”, a term which asserts that paying a livable social assistance rate creates “disincentives to employment”, for which there is no research evidence.
Rather, we must recognize that people on social assistance are frequently trapped in a poverty cycle, moving back and forth from social assistance to insecure, low wage jobs, not for want of a work ethic, but because of the lack of access to decent and secure employment opportunities that enable people to escape poverty. [Rowntree Foundation, 2010]
People living in poverty in Ontario and Canada are more highly educated than ever before:
While training and education programs can improve employment prospects, more structural approaches are needed to seriously reduce the number of people on social assistance and to eliminate poverty.
The social assistance program in Ontario has been condemned as “broken”, and “a social and economic ghetto.” Denigrating the system only contributes to further demeaning and stigmatizing the people who require its support.
While the objective is to reduce social assistance caseloads as much as possible, it is important to recognize that all European countries with strong and competitive economies (Denmark, Sweden, Netherlands) have public assistance systems that keep people out of poverty.
Therefore, rather than declaring social assistance in Ontario “broken”, we should acknowledge that it has been degraded, and can be upgraded to perform its critically important role of supporting individuals and families who have no or tenuous attachment to the labour market.
A Social Assistance Reform Commission has been set up to undertake a review of the social assistance system in Ontario [link to the Terms of Reference]. The Commission, however, is not scheduled to report out its findings and recommendations until June 2012.
Further, the Terms of Reference of the Review Commission make no mention of the issue of ensuring establishing benefit levels in a reformed system that will ensure income adequacy to meet the basic daily costs of living.
Poverty Free Ontario acknowledges that a comprehensive review could lead to longer-term reform that would improve how social assistance meets the needs of recipients. PFO supports community input and cooperation with the Commission to gather information and insights on how to accomplish that goal.
There is no reason, however, for the Ontario Government to wait until the Commissioners report in June 2012 before acting on the issue of the inadequacy of OW and ODSP benefits today. There is more than enough evidence that OW and ODSP benefit levels leave recipients living in the hunger and hardship of deep poverty.
Therefore, PFO supports the Put Food in the Budget campaign in calling on the current Ontario Government and any future provincial government to add immediately the $100 per month Healthy Food Supplement to the basic needs Allowance of all OW and ODSP recipients as the first step toward income adequacy in benefit levels. (www.putfoodinthebudget.ca)
The Social Assistance Review Commissioners have assumed an important mission. They have an opportunity to make a major contribution to raising public awareness and focusing the attention of all political parties and candidates in the upcoming provincial election on the unjust living conditions of people living on social assistance.
PFO urges the Commissioners to issue an interim report prior to the provincial election: