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Let’s turn social assistance on its head to make it better

Published on 25/11/2020

We are bad at social assistance.

This is not news, I know. But recently, I can’t help but be struck by just how bad our social assistance system in Ontario is. Last week, Maytree published our annual Welfare in Canada report, which examines social assistance incomes in provinces and territories across Canada. It confirms what we already know: social assistance incomes are grossly inadequate. They have been for decades.

Two weeks before that, we heard that Ontario will be installing 17 “auditors” into the social assistance system, who will focus on investigating claims of fraud. And, to add insult to injury, that announcement followed the release of Ontario’s provincial budget. This budget, a document that tells us about the government’s foremost priorities, is silent on social assistance, and people living in poverty in general. It’s as if people living in poverty simply don’t exist.

Like many, I was dismayed, but not particularly surprised by these events. But it’s important to take a close look at them and what they mean. These announcements and findings are important because they hint at the values and tacit assumptions that underlie our failing social assistance system.

That this system provides such a small amount of money is the result of the idea that some people are deserving of our help, and others are not. It comes from the idea that people are poor because they are lazy and don’t want to work. In other words, that their poverty is the result of their own individual choices, that they are undeserving. The idea of “auditors” starts with the notion that poor people are dishonest and want to defraud the system. The government’s silence on social assistance, except to police it, says that people living in poverty don’t merit our attention, our action, or our investment.

Any system that is built on this foundation is bound to fail.

What if we turned these ideas on their head? Let’s start from this premise instead: Every person has a human right to an adequate standard of living.

This inherent, inalienable human right is affirmed in international law – the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which Canada ratified in 1976. Economic and social rights relate to our ability to live in dignity and participate fully in society. They include rights related to the workplace, social security, family life, participation in cultural life, and access to housing, food, water, healthcare, and education. They include the right to an adequate standard of living.

When we start from this premise, people who are living in poverty are rights-holders. They are people who have a claim to an inalienable human right to dignity and an adequate standard of living – they are not supplicants who should be satisfied with whatever scraps an affluent society decides to leave them. Governments are duty-bearers. They have an obligation to act to fulfill this right for every person living in Canada – they are not benevolent patrons, stepping in on a whim to help the needy. The social assistance system is a core function of the government, one that helps it to meet its minimum obligations to the people – it is not charity.

When we start from this premise of human rights, the resulting social security system looks different than the one we have today. The goal of a human rights-based social security system is to support people to realize their right to live with dignity and participate fully in society. This is not an abstract ideal. This system would be built on a foundation of established human rights principles, with the infrastructure to support this goal. That infrastructure includes, for example, transparent application and decision-making processes. It includes mechanisms that people can use to seek remedy if they believe they are being treated unfairly. It includes meaningful input and participation of the people most affected by the system. And it includes the timely collection, analysis, and publication of data on this system and its impacts.

Notably, producing good data on social assistance should not fall to civil society, as it does today. While Maytree remains ready to shoulder the task of producing Welfare in Canada (as well as Social Assistance Summaries) each year, the public interest should not rely on the goodwill and limited capacity of private organizations. Rather, it should be a pillar of the government’s own methods to evaluate its progress and hold itself accountable. It is an integral part of a system based in human rights.

And it is a system. Implicit in this premise is the recognition that poverty is created by systems that we built and sustain. Poverty is not the result of individual choices; it is the result of our collective choices. So, if our social assistance system does not work, we must choose to take it apart, and build one that does.

With this foundation – centred on the human right to an adequate standard of living – it is possible to imagine a social assistance system that supports, rather than degrades, the people who use it. It is possible to imagine a system that aims to fulfill a human right, rather than one that is satisfied to leave people slightly less poor than they were before.

Certainly, re-imagining social assistance is only the first step. It would be followed by the hard work of building a new social security system, using established human rights principles and architecture. Holding governments and politicians to account will be critical. And it would require significant resources and commitment – adequacy would be key.

Yes, we’re bad at social assistance. But we can do better. To start, we must re-imagine a social assistance system that is founded on dignity and human rights.

Summary

We can do better at social assistance. We must re-imagine a social assistance system that is founded on dignity and human rights.

Topic(s)

Human rights, Income security, Poverty