About 150 people participated in the community consultation session with Commissioners Frances Lankin and Munir Sheikh in Hamilton on Monday, July 4.
Participant contributions fell into several major theme areas.
Adequate Benefits and Wages above Poverty Line
The need for a system such as an independent expert panel to determine social assistance rates based on evidence of the real cost of living in the community was repeated often through the session. Recipients also need access to emergency funds for things such as transportation, medication, and coverage of dental, optometry and other important health-related services. Access to affordable housing in all areas of the city is also key to escaping poverty.
There should be an end to precarious employment and assurance of a living wage that enables workers to live above the poverty line. Those moving off of social assistance into the labour market should not be subject to income claw-backs and should be allowed a sustained income at the living wage level for a period of time before other social assistance benefits are suspended to ensure a stable and lasting transition.
There is a need for real job training, not sporadic short-term courses. Employment services should be matched with employers that provide real work experience. Job training must be related to actual existing jobs in the labour market. The labour market, however, must ensure decent jobs which pay a living wage. Better use of technology to help more people with disabilities be successful in employment.
Clear and Transparent Rules
Both OW/ODSP caseworkers and recipients are frustrated by complex, punitive and nit-picking rules, which need to be simplified and made more transparent, flexible and responsive to individual needs and situations. Better staff training is needed to improve communication between workers and recipients and a role for experienced recipients should be considered to help new recipients navigate the system. Eligibility barriers for new applicants should be reduced, such as low asset thresholds, which just make it harder to get out of poverty even if one gets off of assistance.
Future of Social Assistance
Many participants asked that a universal program be established such as the guaranteed annual income and that current income supports be better integrated. Income supports systems should meet community living needs for food, housing and health. The federal, provincial and municipal governments need to work together on this and also ensure universal healthcare coverage (dental, vision). Corporations should be contributing more through fair taxation.
It is important to overcome discrimination and stigmatization of social assistance recipients, which means presenting a unified position to the public on the need for and rightness of a social assistance system that is effective in meeting the needs of people not able to be in the labour market for whatever reason in the short- or long-term.
Government must understand that minor tweaks will not work. There is a need for a focused uncomfortable discussion about what needs to be changed. Government has a role to play in communicating this in a way to the public that helps build and maintain support.
Poverty Free Ontario thanks Susan Muma of the 25 in 5 Hamilton Network for Poverty Reduction for providing notes for this report.
On Thursday, June 9, Social Assistance Review Commissioners Frances Lankin and Dr. Munir Sheikh released the Discussion Paper and Workbook for their summer consultation on the Social Assistance Review and notice of the web site on which further information and updates will be posted www.socialassistancereview.ca.
The Commissioners will be making visits to eleven selected communities across Ontario for conversations and consultations on the Review and are encouraging community and individual input to the process until September 1, 2011. The release includes a guide to convening and conducting community conversations for the purposes of collecting ideas and suggestions for improving the social assistance system and overall income security reform and sending same to the Commissioners.
The Commissioners plan to issue an Options Paper in November for further input and consultation before formulating their recommendations over the winter and releasing their final report in June 2012.
Poverty Free Ontario will monitor the progress of the Commissioners’ Review. This Bulletin is a preliminary assessment. Poverty Free Ontario will have more to say on the social assumptions and policy directions that are guiding the Review and their prospective impacts on poverty eradication through subsequent Bulletins and its web site (www.povertyfreeontario.ca).
Since March, the Social Planning Network of Ontario has taken the Poverty Free Ontario initiative to eighteen communities across the province and has received an enthusiastic response to its analysis of the issues in social assistance reform and its proposals for ending deep poverty in Ontario by upgrading the social assistance system
Poverty Free Ontario promotes a two-track approach to social assistance reform calling for a first track of immediate implementation of the $100/month Healthy Food Supplement as the important initial step toward establishing adequate benefit levels for all adults on OW and ODSP. While this action is taken now, the second track of the longer-term review and reform process for upgrading social assistance should get underway.
Poverty Free Ontario calls on Commissioners Lankin and Sheikh to issue an interim report prior to the provincial election:
An interim report by the Commissioners in early September would help the community to make poverty eradication an issue during the provincial election campaign.
The Commissioners’ Discussion Paper and related materials are encouraging and helpful to serious social assistance reform in the following ways:
There are a number of areas covered in the Commissioners’ Discussion Paper, however, that should be approached with more caution as communities start to prepare their input to the consultation process.
With respect to expectations about employment at the low end of the labour market, Poverty Free Ontario suggests further that the Commissioners should also point to the “reasonable expectations” of:
Poverty Free Ontario has challenged the legitimacy of the “welfare wall” contentions as not being founded on any empirical evidence. The Discussion Paper carefully presents the issue as “ensuring people are better off working” and states that this challenge suggests the need for “difficult trade-offs” between the interests of social assistance recipients and low wage workers – a perpetuation of the pitting of the working poor (deserving poor) against the welfare recipient (undeserving poor).
The Discussion Paper then presents three approaches to this dilemma:
A fourth option presented by the Commissioners as “outside the mandate of our review but within the broader context of income security – looks at questions around what work should pay, and raises issues related to ‘living wages’ and access to prescription drug and other benefits from employers.” (p.4)
As stated earlier with respect to a basic minimum wage, Poverty Free Ontario agrees that the issue of what work should pay is critical to ending working poverty, and is unclear why the Commissioners put this limit on their income security review mandate, which they otherwise interpret fairly broadly.
With respect to the first three approaches in the Discussion Paper, Poverty Free Ontario contends that the existing social assistance system can be used now to improve adequacy significantly starting with the introduction of the $100/month Healthy Food Supplement. Given the intolerably low current benefit levels, allowing recipients who do find work to keep their employment earnings until their earnings reach the poverty line for their family situation is the only path of decency and dignity. There need be no conflict with the interests of low income workers if a similar path toward gradually increasing the basic minimum wage to enable the full-time, full-year worker to make earnings above the poverty line (Poverty Free Ontario recommends 10% above the LIM-AT based on a $12.50 hourly rate in 2014 achieved in three annual 75 cent increments starting in 2012).
Plus, the development and implementation of a housing benefit with satisfactory coverage of the low income population in need will take some time, while social assistance recipients continue to live in deep poverty for lack of any rate increases since 1995. The Discussion Paper continues the Ontario Government’s misrepresentation of the cost of living adjustments to benefits since 2004 as “rate increases”, when in fact they were increases for inflation and not increases in the actual real income to recipients (p. 11). The 1% cost of living adjustments in social assistance in the last two budgets have not equalled the actual 2% rate of inflation in 2010-11.
Another major caution about a housing benefit as an alternative to setting adequate benefit rates is the same kind of “restructuring” that occurred when the OCB was introduced in 2008 while the rate for parents on social assistance was cut as well as their winter clothing and back-to-school allowances. Social assistance recipients will likely be subject to loss of the shelter allowance portion of their basic benefit if the housing benefit is introduced for all low income people through similar rate “restructuring”. Will this be one of the “difficult trade-offs”?
THUNDER BAY – The Social Planning Network of Ontario is calling for a poverty free Ontario.
“We’re part of a struggle,” said Marvyn Novick, community activist with the Social Planning Network of Ontario. “Aboriginal peoples have their historic dimension to that struggle that has to be honoured, but we also have a struggle about the things in common because all peoples need good wages in the labour market and need to know that the rents they pay won’t take food money.”
Speaking at the Lakehead Social Planning Council’s annual general meeting May 18 in Thunder Bay, Novick said Aboriginal peoples need institutions to end poverty.
“The government of Canada has a fiduciary responsibility to honour commitments made to Aboriginal peoples so Aboriginal peoples can develop their collective institutions and work for ending poverty,” Novick said.
He said the federal government should work with Aboriginal peoples to develop strategies to end poverty on and off reserve and where to get the powers and resources to do so.
The Social Planning Network of Ontario has been holding Moving to a Poverty Free Ontario sessions in 21 communities across Ontario.
The policy agenda for a poverty free Ontario focuses on three key areas: ending deep poverty by upgrading social assistance, ending working poverty by assuring basic living wages, and protecting food money by phasing in a full housing benefit.
The Social Planning Network of Ontario is aiming to build cross-community support for a poverty free Ontario by the end of the decade.
“Human dignity reminds us that there is a moral issue underlying local poverty,” Novick said.
“We’re now recognizing that poverty is not a condition that we have to accept.”
© 2013 Poverty Free Ontario. All Rights Reserved.
Poverty Free Ontario is an initiative of the Social Planning Network of Ontario.