Commentary

Social Assistance Reform Needed Now

Ontario needs to adopt an evidence-based system for determining social assistance rates.

By Craig Foye
Published September 28, 2007

Could you feed your family on $4.10 a day?

Hundreds of families in Hamilton are expected to do just that. A single parent (with one child under 13) who is trying to subsist on the Government of Ontario's Ontario Works Program may face this cruel and impossible situation every day.

This family would also need to buy clothes, cleaning supplies, hygiene products, and many other things within that very limited budget.

This human crisis is a direct result of a social assistance system in Ontario that does not base rates on the costs of basic necessities in Ontario communities. The chart below outlines the budgetary constraints of a single parent with one child who are in receipt of Ontario Works benefits.

Although social assistance rates were increased by two percent in last spring's provincial budget, current social assistance rates - for both Ontario Works (general welfare) and the Ontario Disability Support Program remain arbitrary numbers - with no relation to the actual costs of goods in the various communities across Ontario.

This untenable situation results in many individuals and families being unable to afford the high cost of rent and utilities. Families are accessing emergency food services in numbers not seen since the Great Depression.

Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support Program are vital. Many individuals and families in our communities will always need to access them, whether for a short time or for longer periods. It is crucial that those who require assistance are able to subsist.

The alternative is that community members fall behind on their 'bare bones' budget every month, resulting in problems such as hunger, poor health, and rampant economic evictions.

The Social Assistance Squeeze
Before Tax Monthly Benefits
Basic Needs Allowance $470.00
Shelter Allowance $538.00
Child Tax Benefit $106.92
NCB Supplement $43.75
Ontario Child Benefit $20.83
Total $1,179.50
Before Tax Monthly Expenses
Avg Rent (2bd) $779.00
Avg Hydro Costs $118.96
Basic Phone Service $29.95
Adult Bus Pass $71.00
Child Bus Pass $56.00
Total $1054.91
Daily Amount for food and all other expenses: $4.10

This current situation portends dire consequences for the future of our communities as many children are currently growing up in households living on below subsistence levels of income due to inadequate and arbitrary social assistance rates.

Over 30 years ago, the Government of Ontario based social assistance rates on the Toronto Social Planning Council's Guide to Family Budgeting. Since then, we have seen rates that are no longer based on the actual cost of living.

The problem reached critical levels after "welfare" rates were slashed by 21.6 percent overnight in 1995. Since that time, the rates have lost a further 40 percent of their buying power. The United Nations committee on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights has chastised Canada - several times - for its failure to provide an adequate standard of living to those individuals and families living on government assistance.

Hamilton's Community Legal Clinics core services include assisting and representing clients in receipt, or attempting to access social assistance. We see firsthand, every single day, the dire financial situation many Hamiltonians face - being unable to afford rent, food, energy costs, proper shoes, even toothpaste or shampoo.

After years of unsuccessfully advocating the provincial government for a significant increase in social assistance rates to reflect the actual cost of subsisting, the legal clinics tried a new approach.

With the assistance of a law student of Osgoode Hall, we went back to the future and pulled a recommendation from a report on social assistance reform from 1988. That recommendation suggested creating an 'evidence-based' system for determining social assistance rates.

It made a lot sense and presented a non-political way of setting social assistance rates. We took the initiative to draft a piece of legislation to propose the creation of a body called 'the Ontario Social Assistance Rates Board'.

The Ontario Social Assistance Rates Board would recommend social assistance rates on an annual basis. The Board would make recommendations on setting social assistance rates based on a real life look at what it actually costs to find and keep a place to live and buy basic necessities in Ontario communities.

In May a letter was sent to all local MPPs asking that they support and if possible introduce the draft legislation as a Private Member's Bill.

On June 4, 2007, Ted McMeekin MPP for Ancaster, Dundas, Flamborough, Aldershot introduced Bill 235 in the Ontario Legislature. Bill 235 would have created the Ontario Social Assistance Rates Board.

Bill 235 was unanimously endorsed by Hamilton City Council. Unfortunately, the bill died on the order paper when the Legislature broke for summer recess and the current election.

We will continue to push for the creation of the Social Assistance Rates Board and will be actively seeking support from local MPPs after the election to have the bill re-introduced.

The provincial government should establish an independent committee to determine just and rational criteria by which social assistance rates should be set. E.g. rates should provided for the cost of meeting the Nutritious Food Basket, and the shelter allowance should reflect average local rents as defined by CMHC. Benefits should be permanently indexed to inflation as are federal income benefits.

-- "A Poverty Reduction Strategy for Ontario", Ontario Campaign 2000 Discussion Paper, July 2007

The Ministry of Community, Family & Children's Services and the Ontario Works Program should assess the adequacy of all social assistance rates. Allowances for housing and basic needs should be based on actual cost within a particular community or region. In developing the allowance, data about the nutritional food basket prepared annually by local health units and the average rent data prepared by Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation should be considered.

-- Recommendation #4 of the Coroner's Jury Inquest into the Death of Kimberly Ann Rogers December 19, 2002

The rate-setting process should be established in legislation, along with a requirement for legislative review of proposed changes. The legislation should require, at a minimum, yearly indexation or rates on the basis of the CPI. The statute should require a review of the market basket definition and existing rates every five years by an external committee that reports to a standing committee of the legislature.

-- Recommendation # 49

Craig is a staff lawyer at McQuesten Legal & Community Services in Hamilton. In 2006, Craig reprsented Hamilton's Income Security Working Group in presenting a brief to the United Nations Committee on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights in Geneva on the right to an adequate standard of living. Craig lives in central Hamilton with his wife and daughter.

3 Comments

View Comments: Nested | Flat

Read Comments

[ - ]

By Angela Browne (anonymous) | Posted September 30, 2007 at 20:34:39

I really enjoyed this article; however, it should be noted that many people pay more than average rents. Also, many people on ODSP own their own homes, as they were able to purchase prior to getting involved with social assistance. The rates for utilities have almost doubled since this present Government came to power, and absolutely nothing is done for those of us who have to choose between eating or paying the bills.

It should be noted that this present government is attempting to keep social assistance rates low, so that people reliant on benefits are forced to become desperate and work in *any* job. Many employers are breaking labour standards with abandon, while the government does little, if anything at all about it. Some people cannot work for various reasons, and their needs are certainly not taken into account. I have seen people live in third world like conditions while they wait for me to successfully appeal their ODSP benefits. Many cannot afford to keep a roof over the heads at all, and instead are subject to the poor conditions of homeless shelters, bridges, abandoned buildings, rooftops, as well as detox and emergency rooms, when they need to get out of the cold. I am a cynic, and it appears by the polls that Ontarians are again ready to give McGuinty another majority, which I dread ... as McGuinty, just as with his predecessors, Harris/Eves, did just as much dismantling of various social programs, though he did this while smiling to your face instead of being rude about it like Mr. Harris was.

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By JH (anonymous) | Posted October 01, 2007 at 17:54:44

I, too, thank you for this statement, and appreciate that it is solidly grounded in empirical evidence attesting to the ethically questionable state of social assistance in this province.
While the call for evidence is a neccessary one-giving backbone to the weighty claims that are all too often easily dismissed by evasive political maneuvering-I submit that besides calling for the evidence to speak for itself, it is also neccessary to question the ideological underpinnings of political shifts that underlie the logic of these increasingly fiscally conservative politics.

The ideas behind the latest dismanting of social programs map directly onto the political paradigm known as neoliberalism which sees "citizens" redefined as "citizen-consumers," and the ideas of social democratic politics eroded econo-centric, capitalist modes of doing politics.
Hamilton, for one, has always been a place where social democracy as a political ideal has flourished (i.e. where the general good of all citizens to claim equity and political voice were entrenched in structures like the welfare state; steady living wage employment, institutional care for the disabled, mentally ill, and elderly, the right to form unions, and the early Ryersonian approach to public education).
Increasingly, as governments adopt neo-liberal politics in Canada and around the world, limited government fosters the ease of corporate and private capital to create profit-and deliver the goods equally-to citizenconsumers who are defined primarily as economic beings-not as citizens who should have voice or dignity above the market-given freedoms. The erosion of public social assistance maps on to this model perfectly-as the government has less and less to do with protecting the rights of people directly, and more to do with providing space for corporate actors to accrue profit-this is the model of "development" that is steadily shifting politics leading to not just unrealistic assessments of social assistance levels, but unabashedly anti-poor legislation.

The assumption behind the call for evidence, is that such evidence will get our politics in line with a more humane, equal vision of economic distribution.

The sad case is that with such encroaching neoliberal political reforms, such goals of "adequate provision" simply aren't the goals of politics anymore.

So, while we need evidence, we also need the normative ethical clarity that is able to effectively denounce the market-driven, anti-poor politics of neoliberal political reform.


Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By Genghis (anonymous) | Posted October 08, 2007 at 13:08:30

I see the usual calls for welfare reform are posted yet I dont see any proposals for the cost side of the personal balance sheet.

I do agree that if those with no hope of integrating into the workforce because of health /disability /Mental illness need to have adeduate income from the State.This is a duty as a compassionate society.

However, unless you want to discuss openly the Reality nothing will ever change for those perfectly healthy, but unemployed for various reasons and chewing up welfare resources for those that need it.In a market economy,if something is free, everyone will line up for it.

I truly think those that need more safty net deserve it, but I wonder for example how far the single mom( ..with 2 different fathers ..yes ..it is a reality at times) will go to help there own lot in life?Or The single male 20-35 recklessly fathering kids and disgregarding his personal responsibility to himself and those around him( including the Welfare state ie you and me.. expected to support his ventures)

I do not judge families in these situations, but I do ask that they take responsibility for them.Everyone..EVERYONE makes mistakes and no one is guaranteed the best lot in life.I do not have it(nor do I want it) nor do others.

Do you think in the above examples that in order to receive more money, that certian " social contracts" with the individuals would be desirable to bring them into "Citizen" status such as:

1)If on complete welfare with no chance of re employment because of lack of skill set,the State should be allowed to dictate where that person lives( ie someone less expensive, where there is actual work?)

example, how many people are in this category who live in some of the most expensive cities in Canada..Toronto, Vancouver, etc.I cant even live in Toronto and I am upper middle class income.

2)The State should provide mandatory counselling on Social repsonsibility and personal Ethics?This is tought in the classroom and hopefully from responsible parents, but while moving in,I have seen an unending stream of teenage single moms pushing prams around East Hamilton since I moved here..during the work week and business hours.


In return

1)The State would provide free moving costs to get into area with greaster potential for employment out of economically depressed area.Either move where there is employment or get the jobs to the area via investment.I have to move when work drys up, why not those on Welfare?

2)The State would provide more money to help get that person/family ahead with some forced savings on their behalf.Free financial counselling on how to manage money etc.

3) The State would provide free skills training in a chosen area beneficial to the labour market or society.

3) Provide a social saftey net income/indexed to goals met to improve overall financial wellbeing.


These are just some examples.. yes some drastic,but endless handouts simply enable capable yet unwilling persons to make no changes.You cannot say they do not exist becuase they do.Nor do I believe that all on Welfare are layabouts.

I would like to hear if anyone agrees that personal responsibility is also required on behalf of the individual.Open ended increased welfare is not the answer.

Permalink | Context

View Comments: Nested | Flat

Post a Comment

You must be logged in to comment.

Events Calendar

Recent Articles

Article Archives

Blog Archives

Site Tools

Feeds