Discretionary Benefits: Investment to Promote Health, Dignity and Social Inclusion

Short-term dollar savings must not come at the expense of long-term social costs. In Hamilton and elsewhere, we can’t afford to lose Discretionary Benefits.

By Greg Tedesco
Published March 14, 2013


This past January, I began to work with a group of fellow social work students at McMaster University on a project as a part of a social justice/social movements course.

Our advocacy-based project gave us the opportunity to connect with two key mentors in the community: Tom Cooper from the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction and Laura Cattari from Advocacy Hamilton.

In looking at what direction to take our project, we decided to focus on discretionary benefits offered through Ontario Works, changes to these benefits and the impact of these changes on many Hamiltonians.


In 2012, as part of the austerity budget, the provincial government cut and capped funding for two critical social assistance programs: Community Start Up and Maintenance Benefits (CSUMB) and Discretionary Health Benefits. Tom Cooper wrote an article for Raise the Hammer outlining concerns regarding the impact of these decisions.

Following an outcry from communities and anti-poverty organizations across Ontario at the end of 2012, the provincial government allocated $42 million in transitional funding to assist municipalities offset the impact of the CSUMB cuts.

Unfortunately, provincial assistance was not forthcoming for Discretionary Benefits. This left communities and social assistance recipients questioning whether or not municipalities, including Hamilton, could continue to provide any level of benefits without the previous level of financial support from the province.

While the City of Hamilton has taken a leadership role in protecting Discretionary Benefits since the cuts were announced, a major deadline is fast approaching at the mid-way point of 2013 that will impact their ability to continue to do so.

Hamilton City Council approved funding for Discretionary Benefits for the first six months of 2013, however financial concerns may limit the city's ability to offer these critical benefits at the same levels past this point.

This will mean that many will be without access to basic health and non-health related supports, such as: emergency dental care for adults, basic vision care for adults, prosthetic appliances, funerals and burials, utility arrears payments, vocational training and re-training, travel and transportation for non-health related purposes, moving expenses and other authorized special service items.

Who is impacted?

At the centre of this issue are the individuals that are directly impacted by these cuts. In 2012, approximately 90,000 Ontario Works and Ontario Disability Support Program claims were paid. Without long-term, sustainable funding, individuals will potentially lose benefits and supports, which our working group believes would have devastating long-term, negative impacts on those who depend on these benefits.

It is difficult to quantify the impact of a reduction in these benefits; however the Community Services Department of the City of Hamilton released a report [PDF] in 2012 with a cost analysis of the current benefits and potential impacts of reduced benefit levels.

This report indicated that a "...reduced level of benefits will result in significant health consequences or other hardships to the Hamilton residents currently eligible for these services".

Focus on the present, plan for the future

The overarching purpose of our work was initially to advocate for the reinstatement of provincial funding of discretionary benefits for Ontario Works recipients.

Through advocacy and awareness building, we hope to continue to promote the need for more sustainable, long-term funding for health benefits and shift perspectives of these benefits from being 'discretionary', to necessary social investments.

While the focus remains on advocating for the provincial government to re-commit to funding these critical benefits, the City of Hamilton must remain leaders in Ontario and continue to implement strategies to maintain service levels.

Moving Forward

After reflecting on positive outcomes that had come as a result of community organizing and advocacy around the issue of CSUMB, Tom Cooper wrote: "It will be critical in the months to come to continue to impress upon the provincial government and those vying to become Premier that cutting critical social programs will result in huge costs to individuals and society".

This sentiment remains true today, as city staff continue to determine how to effectively work within the current funding limitations to maintain Discretionary Benefits.

A new premier in Ontario provides a level of renewed hope that issues around social justice may be addressed in a more comprehensive way.

With this hope must come continued engagement and action from citizens and advocates, as well as our elected officials, to impress upon Premier Wynne and her Cabinet the importance of this issue and the need to renew the commitment to social programs that promote long-term health, equity and social inclusion.

Short-term dollar savings must not come at the expense of long-term social costs. In Hamilton and elsewhere, we can't afford to lose Discretionary Benefits.

Greg Tedesco is a proud Hamiltonian for the past ten years. He is interested in issues around health, equity, inclusion & social justice. Connect with Greg on twitter @greg_tedesco.


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By Deb (anonymous) | Posted March 15, 2013 at 03:48:31

Well said!

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By EastHamilton (anonymous) | Posted March 15, 2013 at 19:14:57

Basic welfare and disability payments seem necessary, but why things like "utility arrears payments" and moving expenses? I am genuinely asking, because many working people no longer have eye exams covered by OHIP, and many people who work can not afford regular dental care, emergency or not.

The province of Ontario is something like 250 billion dollars in debt. Why should taxpayers pay for someone's travel and transportation and moving expenses, or their hdyro bills if they don't bother paying them? I might be missing something, but these "Discretionary Benefits" are above and beyond welfare payments, aren't they? If so, why can't they be cut? Welfare is hardly generous, but there's a reason why it's enough to live off of, but not much extra.

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By greg_tedesco (registered) | Posted March 15, 2013 at 20:29:42 in reply to Comment 87260

Thanks for reading, as well as the reply! I encourage you to read the PDF in the article that breaks down these benefits to provide a larger context of how and why they are offered. Also, if you're interested in the broader context of why communities united and advocated against cuts to CSUMB and discretionary benefits, I also encourage you to follow the other links provided in the article. Hopefully it provides a more detailed idea of the purposes of these programs are further information on why they remain extremely important to those in our communities.

To briefly address a couple of your points: example of utility arrears; It's not always a case of 'not bothering to pay', especially if the alternative may mean not being able to afford food to eat, for example. It's more complex than simply individualized, personal choices, especially when considering any structural barriers that limit choice/opportunity in many ways. I'll also challenge the "welfare is enough to live off of" idea, especially with the amount of evidence that rates do not at all adequately reflect the cost of even basic standards of living.

In terms of the cost of the benefits, breakdowns are in the PDF as well. From my perspective, this isn't money that's being thrown away. These are social investments that if cut, will lead to further financial and social costs. Removing these supports further impacts and marginalizes some of the most vulnerable in our communities; in my opinion, necessitating program support/reform from the province to ensure that this is not the case.

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By scrap (anonymous) | Posted March 16, 2013 at 01:05:54

While these programs have been cut, I am lost in your effort to show where the roundtable and people like Laura Cattari are making a real effort to fight for these benefits?

As an activist on poverty issues, I was dismayed by the Roundtqble's effort last December on the CSUMB issue. It brought together mostly not for profits people, which is not the same as those who live in poverty.

These not for profits are building the message for the new vision, where unless you have a fire or flood, maybe bedbugs, you will not get get any help for housing start up. God help if you are wonamn fleeing a domestic dispute issue, with your kids, because yo will noty get any money for new housing. and the not for profitss, who rely on funding from the government will be the catalysts, that impose this draconian version on the people.

I think this writer misses many points of reality, I assume that youth plays a role in all this. Along with the attack on the poor, we are all witnessing the attack on unionized workers and small business people, as the same enemies of the those as the poor.

I am sorry there but this writer has missed the point on many levels and putting those who are the yes people into the fore front, opposed to the actual voices of those who struugle, a bit misleading.

I would suggest that this studfernt needs to pay attention to the intrusion of the corporate world into the campus, that they study at and how they are all taught about poverty, which is not tyhe reality of those who do struggle, not that students do not struggle, however, many of them will slit thier throats for the grade, yet stab everyone, they are supposedly advocating for.

One must always be aware of the real messaging of those that thye promote, meaning does Ms Cattari really advocate for those who struggle or does she have her own agenda as a disabled person, which given all the is coming dopwn, she seems not to care that she is actually adbocating for the increased struggle of those who ar disabled, as long as one gets sirtime and recognition.

It is along road from q job that pays around $ 80, 000 a year to beihg on disability.

An injury to one, is an injury to all.

Yo get what you pay for, what in reality as a student, you are paying big bucks for what exactly?

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By greg_tedesco (registered) | Posted March 16, 2013 at 02:01:41 in reply to Comment 87265

scrap - Thanks for reading, and appreciate the constructive aspects of your feedback. As a student group, working to engage the broader community around us, we believe that provincial funding for discretionary benefits should never have been cut and that there needs to generally be more awareness about this issue - and how it impacts individuals. I never said that I speak in place of anyone, nor would I, who accesses these supports - nor can I alone adequately explain the impact of their loss from personal experience, that was never my intention. That's an experience I don't have.

One thing I can do is speak as someone who cares about health, equity and inclusion in my community; values which I believe will be negatively impacted if these supports are lost. These are values I will personally continue to hold and I hope that we can continue to build community partnerships and engage in discussion with one another to create positive change, respectful of one another and the many different experiences and perspectives that are represented.

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By Mainstreet (anonymous) | Posted March 18, 2013 at 13:05:08

Broken homes and stolen childhoods, crazy and dysfunctional parents, who in turn create single moms with multiple children and sons brushing with the law, and on it goes. The same old hand wringing and sorrowful feelings from the the poverty industry and all of those whose jobs depend on constantly comming up with piety,pity and requests for more money to create more grants and programs that dont really accomplish anything helpful to those in need.A new approach is needed to solve the root causes of this massive fail in our society.The status quo is not working and peoples lives are slipping away.

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By Scrap (anonymous) | Posted March 23, 2013 at 02:26:37

Hi Greg

Thanks for your feedback onmy post. Ii do not disparage those trying to get an education, in our ever greater society that pushes a corporate agenda, that is taught at a post secondary level. I have issue with those who lack the courage to speak the truth.

G oven certain events, one can see what is being taught, short term solutions, that do nothing, such as gatnering items, such as diapers and wipes for young mothers, yet no real discussion of the system, that traps these young mothers into dire poverty and being harassed and policed by inept children,said workers.

why isn't, noonewantstoreallydiacussthepure capitalist system, that pushes privatization of social services?

FDoesnotheravages of the cold, capitalist system, that has pushed peoplei to survival mode

academia is one thing,it is not reality, thus students, in my view are being brainwashed into believing it is individuals that cause their problems, with no focus on the system that has caused it

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