Province to make major welfare reforms

By Bruce Reeve [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

TORONTO—Those waiting for the shoes to drop on the 100-day review of the Ontario social safety net received some answers following an announcement made Thursday, November 22 at Queen’s Park by Lisa MacLeod, minister of Children, Community and Social Services. The announcements brought good news/bad news for those on social assistance in the province.

“There is some good news,” said Manitoulin-Sudbury District Services Board CAO Fern Dominelli. “They are increasing the amount people can earn while on assistance and setting annual limits of $6,000.”

So, the good news was that those on social assistance will be able to earn more while on assistance, the bad news is that more of that earned over the threshold will be clawed back. There will also be a change in the definitions of who can qualify for disability assistance.

Each month, recipients of the Ontario Works social assistance fund will be allowed to earn up to $300, that’s up from the current exemption of $200. Once over the $300 threshold, the clawback will climb to 75 percent. The Liberals had promised to raise the monthly threshold to $400, with a 50 percent exemption on any additional earnings.

The changes also mean that the earnings exemption for people on the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) will now be calculated at $6,000 annually, instead of a monthly rate of $200 per month.

Reaction from critics was swift and harsh.

NDP Community and Social Services Critic Lisa Gretzky pointed out what this change would mean for people. “Dan is on ODSP because he has a learning disability, and he qualifies under the current rules,” she said. “However, under the federal Canada Pension Plan disability threshold, he would not qualify as he can work minimal hours. Being able to work, and taking pride in the work he does, is exactly what makes him ineligible under the federal rules that the Ford government’s minister says she wants to adopt. Why?”

“Without a strong social safety net that is designed with compassion and inclusivity at its core, the policies outlined by the Ford government will only push people deeper into poverty,” said Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) President Chris Buckley in a release following the announcement. “In a province that has eliminated workplace rights and refuses to provide a decent minimum wage of $15 an hour, these changes to social assistance programs will inevitably drive more Ontarians into poverty.”

The OFL president noted that the changes, for example, will align the definition of ‘disability’ under the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) with federal guidelines. “This means excluding a significant portion of those currently eligible for the program, including injured workers, those with episodic disabilities, and people with certain mental health issues.”

“The government has made it that much harder for people with disabilities to access ODSP,” said Mr. Buckley. “By raising the eligibility threshold, this government has decided to further marginalize some of Ontario’s most vulnerable residents. It’s absolutely shameful.”

As always with government announcements, many of the “devils” may be in the details, but the plan announced by the Tories is well in line with their focus on getting people off of social assistance and into the workforce.

Dealing with the byzantine convolutions of the social assistance portfolio has long been an issue for successive governments, and social activists have never had much good to say about any reforms, noting that those reforms usually add yet another complication to the system without improving access or results.

For her part, Minister MacLeod said the current social assistance system puts users in a “cycle of dependency” that mitigated against their exiting the system. The minister may have a point, as the current escape percentage from Ontario Works is barely one percent a month—with 80 percent of those leaving the system eventually returning to the rolls.

Among the positive potential contained in the announcement are plans to better integrate the services of several government ministries that impact on employment programs.

It’s a big deal for any government’s budget. The province currently spends around $10 billion annually on social assistance, according to the minister. The Progressive Conservatives under Premier Doug Ford have already trimmed planned increases in the OW stipend this January from three percent to 1.5 percent.

The Thursday announcement follows the government’s earlier move to cancel the Liberal’s flagship basic income pilot project, which provided payments to 4,000 low-income earners in Hamilton, Brantford, Thunder Bay and Lindsay. At least one First Nation was originally supposed to be added to that list, but that addition never materialized.

The Tories plan to “redesign and simplify” ODSP by aligning its definition of what constitutes disability with the federal government’s guidelines. Most social activists have already weighed in on this particular change, noting that the tightened guidelines will make it harder for some people to qualify for disability designation. The threshold to qualify for disability benefits under the Canada Pension Plan is higher than it is for the ODSP.

Although Minister MacLeod declined to speculate on whether the change will reduce the number of those qualifying for ODSP, she did confirm that current recipients will be grandfathered into the system and admitted that those no longer qualifying could end up in the Ontario Works stream.

The government currently estimates that there are 200,000 unfilled jobs in the province.

The DSB, along with other service delivery providers, is currently seeking to have the government integrate the Employment Ontario program under the providers to better allow for a closer alignment of a region’s employment needs.

“We aren’t looking to be the provider ourselves, we would contract that part of the service out,” said Mr. Dominelli. “We would just like to see better coordination with the employers in our district.” As for the other changes coming to the system, Mr. Dominelli said that he was looking forward to working with the government. “There is an 18-month rollout,” he said.

Some 960,000 Ontarians are currently receiving either OW or ODSP.