Publications, opinions, and speeches

Speech

The impacts of Ontario Works legislation changes depend on what we do next

Published on 19/05/2021

Good afternoon.

My name is Garima Talwar Kapoor, and I am the Director of Policy and Research with Maytree. Maytree is a charitable organization committed to advancing systemic solutions to poverty and strengthening civic communities. We believe the most enduring way to fix the systems that create poverty is to ensure that economic and social rights are respected, protected, and fulfilled for all people living in Canada.

Thank you for the opportunity to appear before the Standing Committee on General Government. My comments today will be regarding Schedule 21 of Bill 276, Supporting Recovery and Competitiveness Act, 2021.Specifically, I will comment on proposed changes to the Ontario Works Act, 1997.

At its surface, the proposed amendments to the Ontario Works Act seem technocratic in nature—more about the machinery of government and the delivery of Ontario Works. Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) make up Ontario’s social assistance system. Both programs support people living in deep poverty. While it may seem like these proposed amendments are simply technocratic changes, they are not. These amendments shift the underlying ethos of Ontario Works, and change who is responsible for different elements of program delivery.

As a result, it is incumbent on us to understand the potential implications that such changes may have on some of the most vulnerable people in our province. And as we examine the potential implications, we need to ask whether the proposed amendments are clear, reflective of the government’s vision for social assistance reform, and in the best interest of people living in deep poverty.

Ontario Works was established almost 25 years ago. Since then, the values that underpin social assistance have changed. Twenty-five years ago, the dominant narrative that shaped the rules and regulations of Ontario Works were predicated on the idea that people would face unemployment only for a short period of time, and that people in fact needed to be incentivized to go to work. These ideas dictated the litany of rules and regulations that govern social assistance. As a result, over the past several decades, we’ve normalized the devastatingly low rates available on social assistance. We’ve normalized a system that is overly punitive and invasive. We’ve convinced ourselves that deprivation is the way to help people achieve a sense of independence.

Our policies and systems aimed at supporting people living in poverty have not kept up with the changing nature of our economy, labour market, and society. We are now faced by undeniable facts that force us to re-think how we develop and deliver social assistance.

For example, the length of time on Ontario Works has been steadily increasing over the past decade—from 1.5 years to 3 years on average.[1] This is not by accident, and points to larger problems in our labour market. For example, non-standard employment—some of which can be precarious, and marked by low wages and little to no benefits—grew at double the rate as standard employment arrangements from 1997 to 2015.[2] It is hard to find and keep a job if the jobs created do not pay a living wage, and are insecure and unstable.

Furthermore, single, unattached adults make up a large proportion of the Ontario Works caseload.[3] While a single adult can receive a maximum of $733 a month on Ontario Works, the average rental cost of a bachelor unit in Ontario was $1,142 in 2019.[4] This represents a shortfall of more than $400 a month. This is before the cost of food, water, hydro, and internet.

With this as the context for social assistance reform, it’s no wonder that the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services (MCCSS) released Recovery & Renewal: Ontario’s Vision for Social Assistance Transformation.[5] The vision paper outlined how service delivery changes across the social services sector could help people receiving social assistance address barriers to employment and access the benefits they need for their well-being.

The question is whether Schedule 21 of Bill 276 starts to move towards this vision.

Amendments to the Ontario Works Act change who is responsible for the delivery of certain parts of Ontario Works. The aim is to move to a system where the province centralizes intake and the delivery of financial supports, while requiring municipalities and District Social Services Administration Boards to deliver “life stabilization” programming. While not articulated in the bill, these changes would help “free up” caseworker time to focus on the needs of social assistance recipients, ensuring people have access to the programs and supports they may need.

About one-third of Ontario Works recipients are in need of “life stabilization” supports,[6] and as such, MCCSS’ focus on this is understandable. Proposed amendments to the Ontario Works Act aim to change the definition of “employment assistance” to “employment and life stabilization assistance”—a marked changed in the ethos of social assistance, clarifying that there are a number of barriers to employment. Importantly, it signals that access to select public services are critical for the success of life stabilization programming.

However, while these changes are understandable, it does not mean that MCCSS is currently on the path to achieve its vision. For example, the provincial government will have to invest more significantly in areas that enable stability and well-being (e.g., housing and child care). Unfortunately, the province currently does not have a plan to invest in public services. Based on our own calculations using a recent report from the Financial Accountability Office (FAO), there will be a $1.9 billion shortfall between expected and demand-driven requirements for investments in social services in 2021-22 and 2022-23 alone. Without further investments that increase access to quality public services, the government will be just adding people to housing and childcare waitlists. I’m not sure that this is the kind of “transformation” the government has in mind.

Importantly, this shift in Ontario Works creates questions about how municipalities will be funded for their work on a go-forward basis, and whether they will have the tools and resources needed to deliver programming supports to not only social assistance recipients but the broader low-income population.

While technicalities about performance measures and funding formulas will be resolved in the months and years to come, the fundamental question is what these changes mean for an individual or family receiving social assistance. There is uncertainty amongst people living in poverty that such a change may actually make Ontario Works more invasive than it already is—that someone might have to demonstrate that they are accessing the supports (e.g., mental health supports) as a pre-condition for receipt of financial assistance. As I am sure that it is not the intention of government to make the program even more invasive than it already is, the government should clarify what its intentions are around life stabilization supports and reflect these in the regulations that follow the amended legislation, if passed.

Lastly, it is important to note that the vision paper and proposed amendments under Schedule 21 have little to say about the inadequacy of rates provided in Ontario Works. For the record, the total “welfare income” of a single person receiving Ontario Works in 2020 (that includes any tax credits and benefits that an individual may receive in addition to social assistance) is about 40 per cent of the Market Basket Measure poverty threshold.[7] If we are truly looking to help support people living in poverty, we have to increase the income assistance available to them.

This is the first time in several decades that such consequential amendments to the Ontario Works Act are being proposed. While I appreciate the opportunity to be here, and welcome any questions and comments the committee may have, my last thought for this presentation would be to encourage the government to engage and consult with people living in poverty about the proposed changes, and to consider their lived experiences. Given how transformative the proposed vision and amendments could be, the government’s success hinges on its ability to connect with the very people it aims to serve.

[1] Zon, N., Granovsky, T. (2019). Resetting Social Assistance Reform. Available at: https://on360.ca/policy-papers/resetting-social-assistance-reform/#_ftnref2.

[2] While many refer to the impacts of precarious employment in Ontario, the government of Ontario does not have strong data on the rate of precarious employment. As a result, this policy brief uses information about standard and non-standard work arrangements. The information provided in this presentation is available at: https://www.ontario.ca/document/changing-workplaces-review-final-report/chapter-4-vulnerable-workers-precarious-jobs#section-2

[3] Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services. (2021). Ontario Works Monthly Statistical Report – March 2021. Available at: https://www.mcss.gov.on.ca/en/mcss/open/sa/owCaseLoadReport.aspx

[4] CMHC Market Rental Survey. Available at: https://www03.cmhc-schl.gc.ca/hmip-pimh/en/TableMapChart/Table?TableId=2.2.11&GeographyId=2270&GeographyTypeId=3&DisplayAs=Table&GeograghyName=Toronto

[5] Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services. (2021). Recovery and Renewal: Ontario’s Vision for Social Assistance Transformation. Available at: https://www.ontario.ca/page/recovery-renewal-ontarios-vision-social-assistance-transformation

[6] Auditor General of Ontario. (2018). Value for Money Audit: Ontario Works. Available at: https://www.auditor.on.ca/en/content/annualreports/arreports/en18/v1_311en18.pdf

[7] Tweddle, A., Aldridge, H. (2020). Welfare Incomes. Available at: https://maytree.com/welfare-in-canada/

Topic(s)

Income security, Poverty

Summary

Presentation to the Standing Committee on General Government regarding Schedule 21 of Bill 276, Supporting Recovery and Competitiveness Act, 2021.