Publications, opinions, and speeches

Article

Policy reflections about social assistance: Where we’ve been, and where we’re going

Published on 20/08/2020

Somehow, in the roller coaster of the last five months, we have landed in the dog days of summer. As the days blended into each other – the dreary days of March somehow became the blazing hot days of August – it might seem like we have been on this ride forever. But of course, much has changed.

As many of the initial emergency response programs come to an end, we should take the opportunity to reflect on the long-term effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on social assistance. How has the crisis compelled us to think differently about social assistance? What does the future of our social safety net look like?

The interactions between programs have always been an issue in our tangled social safety net, and the interaction, for example, between the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) and social assistance is no exception. In the absence of clear guidance from the federal government at the outset, each province and territory made their own choices about how to treat the CERB for social assistance recipients. They could choose to leave all of the monthly $2,000 from the CERB with people, or to claw some or all of it back.

THE UPSHOT The different decisions made by provincial and territorial governments on how to treat the CERB for social assistance recipients reflect the incoherence of social policy and programs in Canada.

In our home province, Ontario, the government decided on a partial claw-back. Obviously, this is not the decision that many of us had hoped for. But, it is important to also see the potential opportunities in this decision: it sets a precedent for treating income replacement programs like employment earnings, which are subject to a higher claw-back rate. In addition, the Ontario government committed to re-investing the clawed-back funds into the social assistance system.

People who have income from employment, as well as social assistance and now the CERB, and who live in rent-geared-to-income (RGI) housing might also find themselves at a complicated intersection. A change in income could result in a change in a RGI tenant’s rent amount, and make them subject to multiple income assessments, potentially changing how much rent they owe.

THE UPSHOT While simple programs like the CERB may be easy to understand, their impacts on other programs are harder to figure out and deeply affect the lives of people living in poverty.

When we think about how the crisis has affected our social assistance system, we must also remember the massive changes that were already underway before the onset of the COVID-19 crisis. Earlier this year we wrote about the transformation of employment and skills training for people receiving Ontario Works. Since then, the service system managers for three pilot sites were chosen, and implementation of this new model in pilot communities is underway. Public information is not yet available on the effectiveness of the pilots, but we are continuing to pay close attention.

Another significant proposal, announced in the fall of 2018 long before the pandemic, is to narrow the definition of disability used to determine who is eligible for the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP). It’s not clear whether the provincial government is pursuing this proposed change, but we know that people with disabilities, many of them living in poverty, have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. Narrowing the definition of disability will further exacerbate this inequity.

THE UPSHOT Some ideas for social assistance reform in Ontario were problematic even before the pandemic. While social assistance requires deep reform, we need to ensure that we strengthen the program so that it reflects the needs of people in a post-pandemic society and economy.

To understand the long-term effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on social assistance, we need to have good baseline data. The social assistance summaries we released this spring show us where we were in terms of caseloads in provinces and territories in 2019 (before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic).

THE UPSHOT When we get 2020 data, these summaries will help us understand if and how the COVID-19 shutdowns affected caseloads in different areas of the country. It will also help us understand how our emergency and ongoing responses impacted the lives of people in deep poverty. If we had real-time data though, we could develop these understandings and call for associated policy changes that improve the lives of people living in poverty in real time.

Looking forward, we must ask: Will 2020 mark a turning point in the way we think about our interconnected social safety net? We will need to think differently about social policy, so that our social safety net puts people and their social and economic rights at the centre. We need to rebuild our systems to promote equitable outcomes across race, gender, immigration status, disability, and for every person in Canada. Now’s the time to show that we truly are in all of this together.

Summary

As many of the initial emergency response programs come to an end, we should take the opportunity to reflect on the long-term effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on social assistance.

Topic(s)

Income security, Poverty