Tackling social assistance reform calls for open minds

The challenge of caring for Ontario’s most vulnerable citizens has confounded generations of successive governments and remains an issue with a multibillion-dollar price tag despite the somewhat draconian trimming put in place by the Harris government in the 1990s.

It is the echoes of that earlier Progressive Conservative approach to welfare reform that has social activists across the land sounding alarms and making dire predictions about how the Ford government reforms will impact poverty and the disabled.

The previous Liberal government planned a slight increase in the Ontario Works (OW) and Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) payments of three percent, since halved by the Ford Tories. The Liberals further upped the ante by increasing the amount recipients could earn at a job before clawing back the public largesse and allowing recipients to keep 50 cents of every dollar above that.

But throwing money at the issue has rarely worked as promised. That is not to say that OW or ODSP amounts are too generous, it baffles the mind how anyone can adequately house, feed and clothe a family on the amounts currently provided—often leading to unpalatable decisions on whether to pay rent or buy groceries.

The Liberals’ basic income pilot might have found a path forward, but its unpalatability to the Conservative ideological mindset has led to its summary cancellation by the Tories on the unsubstantiated grounds that it was not working.

Despite ideological beliefs and anecdotal evidence to the contrary, the vast majority of those on OW or ODSP are not there willingly. Certainly there are systemic issues that have served to trap recipients in the welfare loop and this paper has challenged governments of all stripes on their propensity to make things worse while trying to make things better.

The result of tweaking and fiddling over the past several decades by those governments has resulted in a bizarre and convoluted system whose hallmark tends to be an inconsistent efficacy at best and the aforementioned trap at its worst.

While it is easy, and perhaps even tempting, to demonize any move by government to cut the Gordian Knot of welfare reform and produce something that works for everyone as being akin to the machinations of a Grinch, perhaps it would be better to see how the devil’s details play out rather than rushing to judgment, considering the best efforts of all predecessors have fallen short of the mark.

Certainly a better alignment of the province’s job training regime to better fit the needs of the job market is a laudable goal. Hopefully the province will pay close attention to the sage advice offered by those close to the front lines of the issue, and resist the temptation to create one-size fits all solutions that, inevitably, align more with the situation in southern Ontario than here in the North.

Whatever plan Premier Ford and his colleagues at Queen’s Park eventually come up with, they should implement it following the same principles that guide the hands of doctors—do no harm. It is important to understand that being physically able to perform the functions of a particular job, or jobs, many invisible issues of mental health may prevent someone from being able to hold such a position. Starving those people or leaving them on the threadbare edges of society will only cause more problems than they will serve. There are already far too many people currently in our prisons due to desperation and despair—and a disproportionate number of those are Indigenous.

We do need to find a better way.