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.
Commissioners Frances Lankin and Munir Sheikh were in Niagara Region on Tuesday, July 5 and met with representatives of community agencies, social assistance advocacy groups, a Regional Niagara Councilor and Regional Community Services Staff in the morning. They then had lunch with a small group of social assistance recipients for their input into the issue. In the afternoon they met with Regional OW caseworkers.
In the morning, the Commissioners were urged to take “bold action” in their reform proposals and to release an interim report before the provincial election to help bring poverty into a stronger public and political consciousness. The Commissioners resisted the notion indicating that they would “engage politicians but not make pronouncements.” The Commissioners expressed an interest in finding some kind of “broad consensus” around which they could “coalesce” to pass on to the government.
Community participants told of the economic hardships that people are experiencing in Niagara leaving many who had always worked now in desperate living conditions. They reported on the “cycle” of moving back and forth between the labour market and social assistance because of the low paying and precarious nature of the jobs that are available. Regional social services staff reported the heavy pressures under which they work with caseloads higher than the provincial average.
The need for more adequate benefit levels for people on social assistance was clearly stated, although the Commissioners expressed some concern about fairness to working poor people if social assistance recipients were seen to get benefits not available to them. All of which only once again points to the importance of linking a more adequate and improved social assistance system to labour market policies and programs that ensure decent-paying jobs and good employment standards.
Although the Commissioners’ meeting with social assistance recipients was private, it was reported to be a very intense and emotional conversation, which the Commissioners indicated was very valuable to their purpose.
Thanks to Gracia Janes, Chair of the Social Assistance Reform Network of Niagara for providing preliminary and very brief notes for this report. More detailed notes of the morning meeting were taken by Regional Niagara staff and will be available shortly.
WINDSOR – The Windsor Star reports that Commissioner Frances Lankin addressed several critical issues about social assistance reform as she and Dr. Munir Sheikh launched their community consultations in Windsor yesterday.
Although indicating that the Commission would have to make recommendations to simplify a rule-bound social assistance system, Commissioner Lankin also pointed out that there is no rationale for how OW and ODSP benefit rates are set. The Windsor Star reports that Commissioner Lankin said, “It’s not rational . . . It’s not related to how much it may cost for shelter, healthy meals, clothing.”
She also challenged the “urban myth” that people can be better off receiving social assistance than working. Citing the rising numbers of working poor people, she expressed concern about the growing numbers of low-paying and part-time jobs.
The Windsor Star reports that Commissioner Lankin “said government cuts to welfare rates over the last two decades were made to encourage people to seek jobs. However, with the job market offering lower paying jobs, and families living below the poverty line, we may now be in a ‘race to the bottom.’ ”
Poverty Free Ontario has offered a structural analysis of the status of poverty in Ontario that points to the same problems with both inadequate benefit levels and a low wage job market. Action on PFO’s policy priorities would end deep poverty by 2015 for people on social assistance and bring general poverty down to 4% or lower within this decade.
Poverty Free Ontario urges the Commissioners to propose a clear strategy for raising benefit levels to enable people on social assistance to live with health and dignity and to address the poor quality labour market by recommending an increase of the minimum wage over a three-year period that will bring the incomes of earners working full-year, full-time above the poverty line.
Poverty Free Ontario plans to post local reports on the Windsor community consultations on Thursday, June 30.
Commissioners Frances Lankin and Munir Sheikh start their consultation visits this week. Their current schedule is as follows:
The Discussion Paper and Workbook for the community consultations on the Social Assistance Review are available at www.socialassistancereview.ca. Communities not on the Commissioners’ schedule are invited to set up their own community “conversations” on the Review and to submit the results to the Commissioners.
Poverty Free Ontario also encourages communities to conduct their own discussions in July-August. In setting dates, we recommend that you avoid the dates on the Commissioners’ current schedule and invite the Commissioners’ attendance even though right now they are committed only to the above community visits.
In the Discussion Paper and Workbook, the Commissioners interpret their terms of reference as making “recommendations that will enable the government to:
The Review’s Workbook goes on to ask a series of questions under reach of the preceding areas. But, at the end of each section, the Commissioners also invite participants to identify “any issues we have missed or misunderstood.” This PFO Bulletin offers some guidance to communities on the Commissioners’ line of inquiry and important additional questions central to the Commissioners’ task.
Under the heading “Reasonable Expectations and Necessary Supports for Employment”, the Workbook asks five questions (p. 11) related to:
People on social assistance and low income working people have consistently met their personal responsibilities with respect to taking employment:
Their main problem is a low wage job market where a single earner working full‐time, full‐year still falls $1,064 below the poverty line.
Poverty in Ontario is a structural issue. Even the Commissioners acknowledge that “questions around what work should pay” is another approach to income security (p. 4). Employment services for people on social assistance, however, will help only if the labour market provides decent work with adequate ages and benefits to enable people to escape and stay out of poverty.
The Commissioners state that the adequacy of wages in the labour market “is outside the mandate of our review” (p. 4). Yet, any reforms proposed to the social assistance system, even improved employment services and supports, will depend on a labour market that provides jobs that sustain individuals and families above poverty.
Poverty Free Ontario recommends that the Ontario Government build on its previous positive action of raising the minimum wage in 75 cent increments over three years to reach $10.25/hour in 2010 by a second set of three annual 75 cent increases starting in March 2012. This would bring the basic minimum wage to $12.15/hour in 2014 and, indexed annually thereafter, would ensure that an earner working full‐year, full‐time would have an income 10% above poverty.
Poverty Free Ontario encourages participants in the community consultations to give the Commissioners permission to address the larger structural labour market issue in their proposals for serious social assistance reform. Let the Commissioners report out on all that they heard, whether within or outside their interpretation of their mandate.
|Questions to Commissioners Lankin and Sheikh:
Under the heading “Appropriate Benefit Structure”, the Review’s Workbook asks five questions (p. 16) about:
The Workbook suggests that there are trade‐offs to be made “between ensuring adequate income support” through social assistance and “ensuring that people are better off working” (p. 4). Unfortunately, this perpetuates the myth of the “welfare wall”, which holds that benefit levels approaching adequacy act as a disincentive to employment for recipients and is unfair to low wage working people.
There is no evidence that social assistance recipients who can work avoid employment in order to retain their benefits. As noted earlier, the main barrier to becoming “better off working” is the quality of jobs at the low end of the labour market, which both denies opportunity for social assistance recipients to et a firm foothold in sustaining employment and also keeps low wage working people in poverty.
Set Rates to End Deep Poverty. At current benefit levels, people receiving social assistance live in “deep poverty”, defined as having incomes below 80% of Ontario’s official poverty measure (Low Income Measure – After Tax, LIM-AT).
Annual Income (2008)*
Basic Income Gap
|Single Adult on OW||$18,582||$7,352||
|Lone parent with one child on OW||$26,279||$16,683||
|Single Adult on ODSP||$18,582||$12,647||$5,935
(68.1% of LIM-AT)
* Using comparable data for 2008 as the latest year for which Statistics Canada has published LIM-AT figures.
In terms of setting social assistance rates, Poverty Free Ontario urges the Commissioners to propose a comprehensive plan to end deep poverty by 2015.
Further, Poverty Free Ontario believes that the Commissioners have a unique opportunity well before their final report date of June 2012 to address the serious hardship and hunger that almost 600,000 recipients are currently experiencing by calling for the immediate addition of a $100/month Healthy Food Supplement to the Basic Needs Allowance for all adults receiving OW or ODSP.
|Questions to Commissioners Lankin and Sheikh:
No Earnings Claw‐backs While Still in Poverty. In presentations and discussions in twenty communities between March and June 2011, Poverty Free Ontario consistently heard social assistance recipients express frustration at the low earnings exemption level before loss of benefits from employment earnings started and at the high rate (50%) of benefit loss for every dollar earned over the exemption limit. Participants enthusiastically supported the proposal that not one dollar of earnings should be clawed back through benefit reductions until an OW or ODSP recipient’s earnings reached the poverty line.
Benefits for People with Disabilities. Poverty Free Ontario supports the positions of the ODSP Action Coalition on benefit levels and employment expectations for people with disabilities.
|Questions to Commissioners Lankin and Sheikh:
Caution on Potential New Housing Benefit for All Low Income People. The Discussion Paper indicates that one possible way to avoid treating social assistance recipients and low income workers inequitably is “to make some benefits available to all low income people, whether or not they are receiving social assistance.” (p. 4) Examples given include the Ontario Child Benefit and the National Child Benefit Supplement for low income parents.
Although not explicitly identified in the Workbook, it is expected that the Commissioners will explore community interest in a housing benefit for all low income people as a way to address the income support issue.
Poverty Free Ontario offers several important cautions on the notion of a housing benefit:
Poverty Free Ontario recognizes that a housing benefit for social assistance recipients and low wage workers may well have a place in the overall income security reforms that the Commissioners will propose by June 2012. Under conditions where overall benefit levels bring social assistance recipients out of deep poverty and where minimum wage levels assure low income workers earn above the poverty line, a housing benefit can be an important complementary protection against variable high housing costs in communities across the province.
A full housing benefit is a complement to the core income of a low income individual or family, not a substitute for the basic income required to meet daily living requirements. It should be designed as a protection for household money for food and other necessities of life.
|Questions to Commissioners Lankin and Sheikh:
The Commissioners will also seek input on eligibility for special-purpose benefits and inquire whether some may best be delivered outside the social assistance system. The Special Diet Allowance is one such benefit identified.
The Ontario Government’s 2010 budget proposed changes to the Special Diet Allowance (SDA) that threatened an important supplementary support to individuals and families with health-related dietary needs not adequately covered through existing benefits. Since an internal review of the SDA was completed, the eligibility process has been tightened up and the number of qualifying medically necessary conditions has been reduced significantly.
The Commissioners have a chance to serve the interests of OW and ODSP recipients in two ways through their Review:
Clearly, the administration of a Special Diet Allowance in a way that would open its eligibility to low income working individuals and families would be beneficial in general to personal and community health.
|Questions to Commissioners Lankin and Sheikh:
The Commissioners also express the need for better integration of the federal and provincial provisions for income security in general. They point to the growing burden on social assistance as lower numbers of Ontario’s unemployed receive Employment Insurance. These are legitimate concerns and improved coordination and integration between the federal and provincial governments on income security issues are highly desirable.
Federal-provincial jurisdictional considerations and discussions for long-term income security reform should not, however, delay provincial action in the short and intermediate terms on the two clear areas of sole provincial responsibility:
Poverty Free Ontario urges community participants to reinforce with the Commissioners the imperative that the Province of Ontario fulfills its obligations to both social assistance recipients and low income working people, regardless of the federal government’s position on income security.
|Questions to Commissioners Lankin and Sheikh:
Poverty Free Ontario urges communities to affirm the opportunity that the Social Assistance Review Commissioners have not only to propose serious and comprehensive reforms to the social assistance system in Ontario, but also to make sure that the issue of poverty and poverty eradication is part of the policy debate in the upcoming provincial election. Currently, no political party is giving the issue of poverty any prominence at all in its party platform.
The Commissioners would best serve this issue with an interim report on their deliberations with the community by August or early September prior to the provincial election date of October 6.
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”?
The Social Planning Network of Ontario (SPNO) plans to launch an initiative to build cross-community support for a Poverty Free Ontario by the end of this decade.
Social planning councils have a long history since the 1930s of advocating for low income people, whether welfare recipients or working poor. In recent years, the SPNO and its organizational members have assumed a lead role in urging the Ontario Government to adopt a poverty reduction strategy for Ontario. Specifically,
The Ontario Government’s current commitment to poverty reduction focusing on a 25% reduction in child poverty ends in 2013. Since 2011 is a provincial election year, now is the time to begin a public discussion about where Government action needs to go to move from a partial and measured commitment to reducing child poverty to a full commitment to the eradication of all poverty in Ontario by the year 2020.
In May 2010, the SPNO leadership set policy development and cross-community mobilization for a poverty-free Ontario as a major provincial and community level priority for SPNO and its local and regional organizational members in 2011.
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.
The mission of Poverty Free Ontario is to eliminate divided communities in which large numbers of adults and children live in chronic states of material hardship, poor health and social exclusion.
2017 will be the 150th anniversary of Canada as a country and Ontario as a province. Poverty Free Ontario will ask the political leadership of all parties in the 2011 provincial election to commit publicly to a “legacy commitment” for the Sesquicentennial. That legacy commitment would be for the provincial government of whatever political stripe to have adopted and implemented a comprehensive plan by 2017 resulting in the eradication of poverty in Ontario by 2020. This plan should move beyond poverty reduction targets set by the current Government for children in 2013 to bring all children and adults out of poverty by the year 2020.
A. A Policy Agenda for a Poverty Free Ontario
A new Policy Agenda for a Poverty Free Ontario would build on SPNO’s policy development work in 2008. Essentially, policy proposals will be developed and advanced in three key areas for the eradication of poverty in Ontario:
The Policy Agenda would link the strategy for eradication of poverty with a good quality of life for all Ontarians in order to build public and political support. It must demonstrate that the interests of the poor and the broad middle class are indivisible.
B. Critical Milestones
Simultaneously with the framing and promotion of a Policy Agenda for a Poverty Free Ontario, there are specific actions and resource allocations that can and must be taken now and over the next year or more to kick-start a longer term commitment to eradicating poverty. These actions constitute Critical Milestones that would:
The Put Food in the Budget Campaign advocating for a $100/month Healthy Food Supplement for all adults on social assistance is an immediately doable action. This measure could be implemented as part of the Government’s commitment to Social Assistance Review, which at the moment is focusing on long-term overhaul of the income security system rather than action possible immediately using the existing social assistance system.
Proposing specific measures for ensuring income adequacy beyond the first step of the HFS, Poverty Free Ontario would constitute an important policy development link to the immediate social assistance increase that the PFIB campaign is advocating.
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Poverty Free Ontario is an initiative of the Social Planning Network of Ontario.