The recently released Final Report of the Income Security Working Group provides a promising roadmap to a better way. The work that this group has done is excellent. This is an essential companion piece to other efforts of the government to reduce poverty, such as The Fair Workplaces Act and the proposed $15 minimum wage.
Wellesley Institute believes that the recommendations made in the Income Security Reform’s Final Report will support Ontario in meeting its poverty reduction commitments and in creating a healthier province. It is essential that our social assistance system ensures a healthy life for the most vulnerable Ontarians and provides a dignified and supportive pathway to a better life overall. Our collective aim, the “north star” to which we look, must always be to help people to thrive, to live up to their potential and to be supported to take advantage of opportunities before them and to maintain good health. Thriving means giving everyone opportunities for good physical, mental, and social health and well-being.
Ontario’s two social assistance programs, Ontario Works (OW) and the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) do not provide anything near an adequate income for health. For example, in 2014, the benefit rate for a single adult qualifying for OW was an appalling 59 percent of the poverty line, as measured by the Low-Income Measure After Tax. For those in receipt of ODSP, that figure was 35 percent.
Such extremely low-income levels have a major impact on physical and mental health and result in reduced life expectancy. The ability of individuals to participate in and contribute to the larger society becomes very limited. Ontario’s social assistance system is complicated by rules and processes that work to keep people off social assistance. These process barriers, compounded with negative treatment and stigma, make it extremely difficult for people to apply for and receive the support they need: our research on the experiences of women with long-term disabilities made this clear. The effect is to deepen and prolong experiences of poverty.
Persons with mental health disabilities make up a significant component of those in receipt of social assistance. The 2012 Lankin-Sheikh Report on Social Assistance Reform estimated that persons with mental health disabilities made up about 60 percent of ODSP applications, and there are also many individuals with mental health disabilities in the OW system. Yet, the system is ill-adapted to meet their needs. The complex, stressful and sometimes punitive nature of social assistance requirements and process can exacerbate mental health disabilities, or make it too difficult for those with mental illness and/ or addictions to engage with the process. The current income security system does not provide the range of supports needed to improve employment outcomes or maintain sustainable income security for people with mental illness and addictions.
There are many recommendations in the Report that are important for health. In particular:
- The need for a more transparent, supportive, person-centred social assistance system is paramount. Wellesley Institute’s research has emphasized the need for client-oriented, transparent, streamlined systems, with meaningful navigational supports. The Report’s recommendations for transforming social assistance have the potential to create a positive culture of trust, collaboration and problem solving.
- Our research has revealed that one-third of working Ontarians do not receive health benefits through their employment, and that such benefits are significantly less common in low-wage employment. This is a barrier to moving from social assistance to employment. Wellesley Institute supports the recommendation for a low-income benefits program, as a step towards a universal program.
- Wellesley Institute’s publication, First Peoples, Second Class Treatment, explored the devastating impact of historical and ongoing racism and colonialism on the health of Indigenous peoples. Wellesley Institute supports the explicit focus on Indigenous perspectives and experiences, including the development of a specific First Nations developed program.
Wellesley Institute applauds all efforts to increase social assistance. The working group’s suggestions take great strides toward filling these gaps. However, we believe that a 10-year commitment to achieve a minimum income standard will feel like a long time to those who need it today. We must move quickly to ensure that people don’t fall further through the cracks and to ensure that all Ontarians can afford the safe housing, adequate and nutritious food, and other resources that they need to thrive and participate in our society. These items are essential for good health and must be supported at all levels of government and by society as a whole. We need to keep our eye on that north star.