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PFO Bulletin #1: Social Assistance Review

Social Assistance Review Commissioners Release Discussion Paper and Workbook

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 on the Social Assistance Review Commission

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:

  • expressing their intent to propose a comprehensive plan for ending deep poverty in Ontario by 2015 so that no individual or family on OW or ODSP must live on incomes below 80% of LIM-AT (i.e. in “deep poverty” using Ontario’s official poverty line); and
  • recommending that the Ontario Government of whatever political make-up introduce the $100/month Healthy Food Supplement without waiting for the release of the Commissioners’ final report.

An interim report by the Commissioners in early September would help the community to make poverty eradication an issue during the provincial election campaign.

Applying the Poverty Free Ontario Lens to the Review’s Discussion Paper and Consultation

The Commissioners’ Discussion Paper and related materials are encouraging and helpful to serious social assistance reform in the following ways:

  • The Commissioners interpret their mandate as giving them “freedom to examine not only all aspects of social assistance, but to consider all other aspects of the overall income security system that may impinge upon social assistance outcomes.” (p. 2). This could be consistent with Poverty Free Ontario’s proposed two-track approach. One important aspect of the current social assistance system requiring immediate action is the intolerable inadequacy of benefit levels to recipients.
  • The Commissioners express a commitment “to provide adequate income security to those who cannot work” (p. 2).
  • The Commissioners acknowledge that a main barrier to social assistance recipients successfully moving into employment is the lack of other essential supports such as stable housing, childcare, and the costs of medical supports such as prescription drugs.
  • The Commissioners address the issue of supporting employment opportunities for persons with disabilities, indicating some sensitivity to the important balance between opportunity for meaningful work and the security of adequate income support regardless of employment status.
  • The Commissioners suggest that “opportunity planning” or “intensive case management” models would be more supportive to better outcomes for people on social assistance. This would indicate the prospect of workers in the system being freed of the burden of applying heavy and punitive monitoring practices, which would be beneficial both to the experience of social assistance recipients with the system and to the job satisfaction of workers in the system.
  • The Commissioners show a determination to address the complexity and inconsistent application of the regulations and rules that create additional hardship, stress and frustration for people on social assistance.

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.

  • Extending the Notion of “Reasonable Expectations”. The Commissioners are strongly suggesting an employment-focused reform of the social assistance system, which establishes “reasonable expectations” on the recipient with respect to participation in the labour market. 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.

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:

  1. The provincial government to ensure that the basic minimum wage enables an earner working full-year, full-time to live above the poverty line; and
  2. Employers to 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.

  • Perpetuating the Myth of the “Welfare Wall”. Unfortunately, the Discussion Paper promotes the notion of the “welfare wall”, expressing the need to “deliver a benefit structure that provides an adequate level of support, without creating barriers to work – barriers that discourage people from seeking work because it may not pay enough in income and benefits.” (p. 4)

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:

  1. Allowing the recipient to keep a portion of his/her benefits and related services and top up their income with employment earnings until the person leaves the system, judged in the Paper as unfair to low wage working people.
  2. Setting benefit levels below the low wage job rates so that recipients will see that they are “better off working”, which conflicts with the notion of income adequacy.
  3. Providing some benefits to all low income people whether on social assistance or working such as the Ontario Child Benefit (e.g. a housing benefit).

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).

  • The Inadequacy and Risks of a Housing Benefit Approach. Poverty Free Ontario remains concerned that the framing of the three possible approaches to the benefit structure in the Discussion Paper favours a housing benefit over any significant increases in the direction of adequacy for social assistance rates. Poverty Free Ontario would support a full housing benefit that is available to all low income households paying more than 30% of their gross income on housing costs. Current proposals under consideration do not satisfy that requirement as far as Poverty Free Ontario can determine.

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”?

PDF version of PFO Bulletin #1

Poverty activists frustrated.

‘We’re just not cutting it for people living in poverty’

YORK REGION – Poverty is finally coming out of the closet, York Region Food Network program co-ordinator Yvonne Kelly told social service activists and advocates attending the Human Dignity For All: Working For a Poverty-Free Ontario symposium yesterday.

Creating awareness, igniting political will and advancing a policy agenda will support the goal of reducing and eventually eliminating destitution in our communities by 2020, she said.

The gathering at the Aurora Public Library, presented by the Social Planning Network of Ontario and sponsored by its regional council, the Food Network and other stakeholders, is a prime example of how discussion leads to action, Ms Kelly said.

“We want to bring everyone to an understanding of what a poverty-free Ontario could look like,” she said.

“It’s about galvanizing and bringing people together. There’s more impact and momentum by working collaboratively.”

Planning network co-ordinator Peter Clutterbuck lauded York Region’s anti-poverty efforts, citing the region as having one of the strongest social planning councils.

His colleague and keynote speaker Marvyn Novick, a social science professor at Ryerson University, agreed, suggesting the region’s work on poverty reduction is encouraging.

Still, social strata inequities, locally and globally, remain.

Poverty levels in Ontario haven’t changed in 30 years, he said. Social assistance incomes remain unacceptably low.

The poverty line for one adult is $18,582. A single adult on Ontario Works receives $7,352 per year, a gap of more than $11,000. A single parent with one child hits the poverty line at $26,279, but receives $16,683 in Ontario Works support — a deficit of just under $10,000.

Living in deep poverty means tens of thousands of Ontario adults and children experience chronic cycles of hunger and hardship each month when money runs out for basic necessities, he said.

Having a job doesn’t necessarily help, he said. Low pay keeps many trapped in poverty. One third of all Ontario children living in poverty in 2008 came from families where parents worked full time.

The eradication of poverty is premised on policies focusing on three key areas, Mr. Novick said.

To end deep poverty, social assistance needs to be upgraded. To stem working poverty, basic living wages must be enhanced. To ensure food security a full housing benefit must be phased in.

He advocates for an immediate $100 per month healthy food supplement for all adults on social assistance.

Poverty is political, he said. Industrialized countries with high levels of wealth also have the highest levels of poverty and disparities. The Ontario government’s commitment to reducing child poverty ends in 2013, he said. Accordingly, it’s imperative to have poverty front and centre on the provincial election agenda this October.

Ms Kelly agreed.

“We can’t afford not to address poverty,” she said.

York Region Social Planning Council co-chairperson Pat Taylor said efforts to ease the plight of the marginalized need to speed up.

“We’re just not cutting it for people living in poverty,” she said. “This event underlines the urgency of this message. By increasing peoples’ understanding, we hope to create action and strategies that will work.”

In timely tandem with the symposium was the Food Network’s release of Hunger in the Midst of Prosperity: The Need for Food Banks in York Region: 2011.

Last year, regional food banks provided sustenance for more than 52,000 clients, a 20-per-cent spike from 2008, the report notes. More than four in 10 adults said they go hungry at least once a week. Among children surveyed, 17 per cent go hungry once per week.

Food network executive director Joan Stonehocker expressed frustration about the continued need for food banks.

“The pace of change around poverty reduction seems painfully slow,” she said. “As Canadians, we should no longer be speaking with pride about our social safety net. Too many people in our communities are forced to use food banks to get enough to eat.”

The report identifies the struggles of living on low income. With a high proportion of income going to housing, people juggle funds to try to stay afloat and food becomes a discretionary expense, she said.

http://www.yorkregion.com/news/article/1023759–poverty-activists-frustrated-by-pace-of-change

Poverty activists prepare for new battles

GUELPH — Poverty activists turned a classroom into a war room this week, plotting their return to the fray of electoral politics after a few years in the wilderness.

About 60 people came out to the community forum on poverty policy in Rozanski Hall at the University of Guelph where three panellists highlighted concerns facing low-income Canadians.

“Change comes from the collective energy of people in a room like this,” said political science professor Byron Sheldrick, the forum’s MC. “They don’t have to listen if we don’t speak.”

The event served as an informal launch of a local effort to put poverty back on the agenda. Right-wing cost-cutters triumphed in the recent federal election as well as Toronto’s 2010 mayoral race.

“Poverty can only be reduced and eliminated when there’s a political will,” Brice Balmer, one of the panellists, said. “It’s time for that political will to show.”

The panellists were unanimous in their support of a $100 food allowance for people on welfare.

“We keep on hearing we can’t afford it. There’s not enough money,” Mark Woodnutt, a co-ordinator with the Stop Community Food Centre, said. “But we know that’s not the truth. We know there is money.”

The 2011 provincial budget includes $4 billion in corporate and capital tax cuts primarily for banks and insurance companies, Woodnutt pointed out, adding since the government of former premier Mike Harris took power in 1995, social assistance rates have been almost cut in half.

“These are conscious, political choices to keep people in poverty.”

Currently, a single adult on Ontario Works gets about $592 a month to cover rent, heating, water, clothes, personal items and food, Woodnutt said. “When it doesn’t add up, people need to make impossible choices.” Since food is a flexible budget item, it’s often the first thing to be sacrificed, he added.

Panellist Peter Clutterbuck, co-ordinator of the Social Planning Network of Ontario, outlined his organization’s campaign for a poverty-free Ontario.

He said raising the minimum wage to $12.50 from the current $10.25 and ending the clawback of Ontario Works earnings would help keep everyone in the province out of poverty. Of social assistance, he said we must “stop degrading it” and “stop demonizing the people who get it.”

Balmer, a minister with the Interfaith Social Assistance Reform Coalition, said Canada’s middle class has stagnated for decades while the wealthiest have grown wealthier. “We now have a growing gap between the rich and the average,” he said.

An underground economy exists where low-income seniors buy dentures retrieved from funeral homes, Balmer said, and a Kitchener man required ambulance service 157 times because of chronic, poverty-related health problems.

“Think what that costs,” Balmer said. “We need to change how we spend the health care dollars.”

The event was organized by the Guelph and Wellington Task Force for Poverty Elimination. Coordinator Randalin Ellery said she hopes the task force will reach more voters and politicians this time around.

“The federal election came up so quickly, there wasn’t a lot of time to prepare,” she said.

Guelph MPP Liz Sandals has been active on the task force, Ellery said, adding she hopes whoever is elected continues to meet with the group. “It is a great spot for a dialogue,” she said.

dhalfnight@guelphmercury.com

http://www.guelphmercury.com/news/local/article/537758–poverty-activists-prepare-for-new-battles

Social planning group aims to end poverty in province by end of decade

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.”

http://www.wawataynews.ca/archive/all/2011/5/26/social-planning-group-aims-end-poverty-province-end-decade_21481

Published in Wawatay News, May 26, 2011, Volume 38, No. 11

Social councils fighting to eradicate poverty

CORNWALL – Social development councils throughout Ontario are taking a stand against poverty and are trying to encourage governments to take steps to eradicate it.

The Social Development Council of Cornwall and Area in partnership with the Social Planning Network of Ontario and other social councils throughout the province are joining forces to fight against poverty.

Marvyn Novick, consultant with the Social Planning Network of Ontario and Peter Clutterbuck, Research & Community Planning Coordinator with the Social Planning Network of Ontario presented their statistics and plans for the eradication of poverty at St. Paul’s United Church on Monday.

” We believe that there are real policy approaches that could be taken that would move beyond just poverty reduction strategies for children and families, which is a start, to actually eliminate poverty in general, especially those in deep poverty and the working poor,” said Clutterbuck.

The evening began with Michelle Gratton, executive director of the Social Development Council of Cornwall and Area who explained some stories of local people who are living on the streets in what’s called, “deep poverty”.

She told the room of a man who was kicked out of his home and was living in the Sears parking lot and a women who finally got her electricity back after not having it for two months.

“Our poverty rates are high right now,” said Gratton.

“We’ll probably be looking at a very serious situation when the census comes out this summer.”

The night proceeded with an explanation of what the Social Planning Network of Ontario is and who it’s made up of.

The presentation included information about poverty, covering what it is to be poor and the steps that are (not) being made to reduce or eradicate poverty.

“Our agenda is to come into communities present with them an analysis to what the situation is like here in Ontario and make some proposals for priorities for the next (provincial) election to engage their electoral candidates around,” said Clutterbuck.

Novick explained that many people in Canada are living under the poverty line when it comes to having an annual income.

According to his presentation, the poverty line for an average single adult per year is $18,582 a year (after taxes) while the average person on Ontario Works(OW) makes about $7,352 a year.

He suggested that the Government should raise the income that people on OW makes but they won’t because of a dogma or stigma that those who need the system are “begging for handouts” and/or don’t wish to work.

“We have to stop using demeaning language and stop referring to Social Assistance as a social and economical ghetto or broken system,” said Novick.

“It’s not a broken system, it’s a degraded system.”

The evening concluded with a poem, written by someone from Sudbury who was experiencing poverty for themselves and then a question and suggestion period was held.

“It’s important for people to come out to meetings like this in the spring of 2011 to start to think about what they expect of their election candidates in the Provincial election for October and to recognize that poverty is an issue for all Ontarians whether you’re low income or not,” said Clutterbuck.

http://www.standard-freeholder.com/ArticleDisplay.aspx?archive=true&e=3129523

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