Advocacy organizations respond to report on social assistance

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In a recent editorial printed in the Record, physician Gary Bloch talks about a patient of his who lost his job as a carpenter after being in a car accident, and like many, had to go onto Ontario Works to survive. The patient suffered from depression and with only $600 per month to pay for rent, food and everything else you may need to live a normal life, had difficulty affording basic necessities. In other words, as Bloch writes, he had trouble ‘presenting himself with dignity’ in order to be employable. Instead of helping him get back on his feet after an accident, OW trapped him in poverty, exacerbating his physical and mental illness. As this individual’s doctor, Bloch could only prescribe physiotherapy and counseling, knowing that these were only treating his patients symptoms rather than the underlying problem: living in poverty.

Stories like this one are exactly why the provincial government created a commission to research social assistance and look at ways to reform the system. Last week, after consulting stakeholders across the country, the Commission for the Review of Social Assistance in Ontario released its final report called Brighter Prospects: Transforming Social Assistance in Ontario (read the report here). Many are saying that the report is the most in-depth review of social assistance—which includes Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support Program—since the 1980s.

As you know if you’ve read our blog before, many people who regularly come for food hampers are recipients of OW and ODSP. In fact, in 2011, 36% of hampers we gave out were to OW recipients, and about 20% were to ODSP recipients. Together, this means that over half of the food hampers we give are to people on social assistance. Needless to say, we are very interested in social assistance reform going forward, like many poverty advocacy groups in Ontario.

The core recommendations of Brighter Prospects include immediately raising the rate of Ontario Works for single recipients by $100 to $699 per month, combining OW and ODSP into one system, raising income allowances so people do not have to spend all of their savings before being eligible for OW, and working with employers to reduce employment barriers for people with disabilities. Other recommendations include eliminating things like the Special Diet Allowance by rolling extra allowances into a base rate.

Many organizations have responded to the commission’s recommendations. The Wellesley Institute wrote a response here, detailing the possible impacts of the recommendations on the health of people on OW and ODSP. They raise important points, including that merging OW and ODSP could end up hurting people with disabilities—they point out that having a disability isn’t a homogenous category, and having a ‘one size fits all’ system could end up hurting those in special circumstances. As we see every day, people with chronic disease such as diabetes, celiac, or lactose intolerance need to buy specialty food items to meet their basic dietary needs. Items such as milk alternatives, extra produce, and gluten free bread and pasta are often expensive. The commission recommended getting rid of the special diet allowance by rolling it into a standard rate that will be high enough that everyone can afford healthy food. That said, I share the anxiety of the Wellesley institute that in an age where the provincial government is not raising social assistance rates, this recommendation could be interpreted as simply getting rid of the special diet allowance without raising rates at all. This would be absolutely detrimental to the health of many people on social assistance.

Many organizations also pointed out positive aspects of the report. Though $699 per month would still be hard to live on, immediately raising rates would alleviate some financial stress for those on OW. The commission also recommended raising income allowances, meaning people will not necessarily have to sell all of their assets and deplete their savings (including retirement funds) before qualifying for OW or ODSP. This could help people get back on their feet more easily after going on social assistance.

In a Record article last week, minister of community and social services John Milloy was quoted as saying there was not enough money to raise rates of social assistance, highlighting the difficult economic situation faced by the provincial government and the province as a whole.  On the other hand, each day, we are reminded of the difficult fact that living in such depth of poverty directly affects your health and well-being, and ultimately ends up costing the province more in administrative and healthcare costs. A 2008 study by the Wellesley Institute, called Poverty is Making Us Sick, found that an annual increase of $1000 in income for the poorest 20% of Canadians would lead to 10 000 fewer chronic conditions and 6 600 fewer disability days every two weeks. This is significant, and suggests that giving people livable incomes could drastically reduce spending in healthcare.

But there are many different perspectives to consider from people with direct experience.  You can learn more by clicking the names of the organizations below to see what they have to say about the report:

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