“Compassionate” Social Assistance Reforms Vague on Details

Reforms Ignore Strong Proposals From In-Depth Income Security Study and Leave People With Disabilities in Jeopardy

“The Ontario government’s announcement to reform social assistance promised a compassionate and empowering system while offering few specifics, dropping many of the important reforms that were on the table before the election, and committing to a new definition of disability that will likely block many Ontarians with disabilities from getting the income support they desperately need,” said Peter Clutterbuck, Interim Executive Director of Social Planning Toronto, in response to the Province’s proposed changes to Ontario Works (OW) and the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP).

In a much-anticipated announcement, Ontario Minister of Children, Community and Social Services Lisa MacLeod held a press conference on November 22 to discuss the government’s plans to overhaul the social assistance system. In a speech high on platitudes and low on details, the Minister identified a few proposed changes:

  • Future ODSP eligibility will be based on a new definition of disability more closely in line with “federal government guidelines” while current recipients will be “grandfathered” into the new system (i.e., not have to qualify under the new definition). This proposed change is counter to the Roadmap for Change recommendation to maintain the current definition of disability.[i] Further, people with disabilities have identified considerable barriers to accessing federal disability support such as the Canada Pension Plan Disability (CPPD) benefit, suggesting that a shift to a federal definition of disability will restrict access to ODSP for low-income people with disabilities in the future. The Minister would not comment on how future access would be affected by this proposed change. 
  • OW recipients will be able to earn up to $300 per month from employment earnings without having any of their earnings clawed back, up from the current exemption of $200. This is less than the $400 per month earning exemption that would have taken effect in Fall 2018 under the former government and far less than the previous government’s commitment to increase the earnings exemption to $6,000 annually in 2019–20.

While the Minister spoke about the need to remove barriers for social assistance recipients to access employment, her government intends to claw back 75% of OW recipients' earnings above $300 per month and offers no future plans to increase the employment exemption.

  • ODSP recipients will be able to earn up to $6,000 annually from employment without having any of their earnings clawed back, up from the current exemption of $200 per month. Under the former government, the exemption amount would have increased to $400 per month in Fall 2018, with a commitment to increase exempted employment earnings to $6,000 annually in 2019–20 and to expand exempt earnings to include CPPD, EI, and WSIB benefits for OW and ODSP recipients in 2020–21. 
  • Employment supports are promised to people on social assistance through wraparound services arranged by caseworkers freed from policing and paperwork to work with recipients on individualized support plans. Specific supports identified included training, mental health and addictions counselling, life skills development, and even housing and child care. This could be promising and helpful if well implemented, which will depend on the operational details. This approach was linked to the notion of providing undefined incentives to caseworkers to move people into employment, which could also place pressure on both workers and recipients and result in recipients moving off assistance before being job ready. This will require careful vigilance in practice.
  • Pilot projects over 18 months will be used to gradually move in the proposed direction. Meanwhile, benefit levels for all recipients will remain at half (1.5%) the 3% increase provided in the 2018 Ontario Budget, less than the projected rate of inflation for 2018–19. This comes at the same time that the Basic Income Pilot, with much more robust income and service supports over the same period of time, has been aborted. The Minister made no commitment to any further rate increases, leaving social assistance recipients living in deep poverty with no plan to address income adequacy to meet their basic needs, stabilize their lives, and allow them to live in dignity.

“The provincial government appears to have largely abandoned The Roadmap for Change to transform the social assistance system, a plan, unlike the current government’s announcement, that was developed by experts through extensive consultation with OW and ODSP recipients,” said Clutterbuck. “Most details on this new direction are unknown, and what we do know is cause for great concern with respect to the wellbeing of our most vulnerable community members.”

Social Planning Toronto urges the Ontario government to "take a pause" on the redefinition of disability, reinstitute the positive reforms that were scheduled to take effect in Fall 2018, and begin the work of implementing The Roadmap for Change to transform the social assistance system to truly support Ontarians.

 

[i]  Income Security: The Roadmap for Change is a report developed by three expert advisory bodies with extensive consultation with ODSP and OW recipients. 

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