The release today of the final report of the Commission for the Review of Social Assistance in Ontario recommends a number of important steps toward improving the health of people on social assistance.
Most significantly, the Commission recommended an immediate increase of $100 per month for single people receiving Ontario Works (OW). OW rates are currently so low that it is almost impossible for people to maintain good health and to live with dignity. The Commission’s recommendation is an important step toward addressing the income-related barriers to good health that people on social assistance face. We urge the Province to act upon this recommendation immediately.
Increasing income allowances
The Commission also recommended that people on social assistance should be able to earn up to $200 per month without having their income clawed back.
Many people on social assistance face a labour market offering only precarious work, with low pay and no benefits, yet very much want to participate in the labour market. The possibility of losing essential benefits can be a major barrier to becoming and remaining employed. The Commission’s recommendation to allow people on social assistance to keep more income from employment is an important step that will help people to become established in the labour market.
Today’s report recommended that the two provincial social assistance programs – OW and ODSP – be merged into a single benefit with a standard rate. This would mean the elimination of supplementary benefits such as the basic needs and shelter allowance and the special diet allowance as these benefits are rolled into the single rate.
A fundamental principle of the social assistance system must be that supports reflect individual needs. Merging OW and ODSP creates risks that people with disabilities will not receive supports that are essential to health. Disability is not a homogenous category; different people need different supports. It is important that the Province resists the urge to create a ‘one-size fits all’ social assistance system.
Extending benefits to all low income Ontarians
As a trade-off for eliminating ODSP, the Commission recommended that a new disability supplement be created and be made available to all low income Ontarians with disabilities. This recommendation was reflected in many other areas of the report, including the extension of health benefits to all low income people. Providing health-enhancing supports for low income Ontarians is important, but the Province must ensure that any extension of benefits outside of social assistance are adequately resourced. This extension of benefits should not be paid for by people on social assistance, who are among the most vulnerable of Ontarians. Any reduction in benefits will worsen existing health inequities.
Assessing health and health equity impacts
We were encouraged by the Commission’s recommendation that as part of its implementation plan, the Province should establish a framework to assess the impact of changes to the social assistance system on different groups. In our submissions to the Commission we recommended the use of a Health Equity Impact Assessment (HEIA) to analyze a new program or policy’s potential impact on health disparities and on health disadvantaged populations. We would be glad to work with the Province to undertake this assessment.
Urgent need to reinstate the Community Start-Up and Maintenance Benefit
In its 2012 budget, the Ontario government announced that it was cancelling the Community Start Up and Maintenance Benefit (CSUMB) as of January 1, 2013. This was a major program change that pre-empted the Commission’s report. The CSUMB assists people on social assistance who have large or unexpected housing-related costs. Having access to immediate and flexible funds can often be the difference between being housed and losing one’s home.
The provincial government will reduce the CSUMB budget by 50 percent and pass responsibility for housing programs to municipalities. There will be no requirement for municipalities to deliver programs that cover the expenses that were eligible for the CSUMB, and many municipalities across the province have expressed extreme concern about this unexpected download of costs.
In their report the Commissioners make specific reference to the cut to the CSUMB. They argue that while the intent of the government’s actions are consistent with the goals of simplification and improving local flexibility, the decision to cut funding by 50 percent undermines these goals. The Commission recommended that full funding be restored.
The decision to cut the CSUMB in the 2012 Budget was premature. We strongly urge the government to immediately reverse the cuts to the CSUMB.
Important progress, but more work is required
The Commission’s report makes significant progress in a number of critical areas within the social assistance system. Increasing the single OW rate and allowing people on social assistance to keep more of their employment income are major steps forward that the Province should act upon immediately.
Throughout their report the Commissioners highlight that reforming the social assistance system is a major task that it will take time. It is important that the Province engage with partners, including people on social assistance, as they work toward system reform. The Wellesley Institute will continue to analyze the Commission’s report and welcomes the opportunity to work with the Province in their next steps.
For media inquiries, please contact Jo Snyder: 416-898-2098