Story of change

It’s time to fix social assistance

Published on 27/04/2016

Individuals and families receiving provincial social assistance are living in the deepest poverty in Ontario. Many are poorly housed, hungry and sick.

Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support Program are supposed to provide assistance to people who are in financial need. Unfortunately rates are so low for the 900,000 people who rely on social assistance, that once on the programs, many recipients spiral deeper into a cycle of poverty.

Ontario’s social assistance rates do not reflect the real costs of living in communities across the province. This is partly because the provincial government does not set social assistance rates based on an evaluation of the actual costs of basic necessities, but sets them according to other political considerations.

Benefits include two parts: a shelter allowance and a basic-needs portion. In 2016, the shelter allowance for a parent with one child was set at $609 a month by the provincial government – an amount so low that it bears no resemblance to costs families are forced to bear. In the Toronto area, with the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment running at almost $1,300 a month, families on social assistance are often forced to find deficient and unhealthy alternatives. Many families spend upwards of 80% of their income towards rent, placing them at extreme risk of homelessness.

The inadequacy of social assistance rates are also felt at Ontario’s food banks. According to the Ontario Association of Food Banks, nearly 70% of all people coming in for emergency food are in receipt of provincial social assistance programs.

The lack of healthy food and safe shelter affects health. As a result, those living in deep poverty are far more likely to suffer from chronic conditions or poor mental health.

Social assistance rates have been set at an inadequate and inhumane level. Rates today, adjusted for inflation, are still lower than they were before a former provincial government slashed them by 22% overnight in 1996. This level of inadequacy is contrary to Canada’s commitment to human rights through the UN International Convention on Economic, Cultural and Social Rights, to which the provincial government is bound. The rights of the most vulnerable have been grievously ignored for twenty years.

There’s now a push to address these inadequate rates through a new advisory group.

On April 14, 2016, the private member’s bill 185, Ministry of Community and Social Services Amendment Act (Social Assistance Research Commission), presented by Hamilton East-Stoney Creek Member of Provincial Parliament Paul Miller, passed second reading unanimously (80-0), with assenting votes from all political parties. The advisory group, or “Social Assistance Research Commission,” would be created through bill 185.

Should the bill become law, this Commission would be tasked with defining regions in Ontario based on economic geography to determine the cost of living in each region and recommend provincial social assistance rates based on this analysis. Bill 185 is now bound for the Standing Committee on Regulations and Private Bills for review.

This is groundbreaking work and represents the first real political momentum to address social assistance rates in a generation.

Bill 185 would also address some of the critical components to a human rights approach to poverty reduction, including having measurable goals, timely evaluations, and engaging people with lived experience of poverty. The bill would appoint experts knowledgeable on the economic and fiscal challenges of Aboriginal peoples, persons with disabilities, immigrants, refugees and injured workers.

The bill would create an arms-length process to recommend adequate social assistance rates (somewhat similar to the method for determining MPP salaries). Apart from the costs of housing, food, clothing and hygiene, the Commission would also be tasked with looking at transportation, internet access, and basic telephone service. The ability to participate in society and to be free from isolation are necessary to an individual’s equal participation in their community.

The bill would also mandate the Commission to look at the interaction between social assistance and precarious employment, child support payments and the Workplace Safety and Insurance Act. No legislation exists in isolation. Weakening of employment standards directly contribute to recurring periods on social assistance. Child poverty is directly affected by provincial treatment of child support and other benefits.

Bill 185 is an important step forward towards fixing social assistance and restoring opportunity, dignity and a future for its recipients.

For more information about bill 185:

Tom Cooper is director of the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction.

Laura Cattari is vice president of Canada Without Poverty and chairs the social policy working group of the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction.

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