Incoming premier Kathleen Wynne announced this week that social assistance reform is one of her key priorities. Wynne has asked the Secretary of the Cabinet – Ontario’s top civil servant – to put together an implementation plan for the recommendations made by the social assistance review commission. Moreover, Wynne appointed Commissioner Frances Lankin to her transition team.
This renewed focus on reforming the social assistance system is welcome. As we set out in our submissions to the social assistance review commission, the current system does not support opportunities for good health for people who are amongst the poorest and most vulnerable in Ontario.
Here are three things that the government needs to consider to ensure good health for all as it moves ahead with reforms.
Social assistance rates are currently so low that it is almost impossible to have good health. People on social assistance do not have sufficient income to afford the housing, food, and other elements of an adequate standard of living.
The Commission recommended an immediate increase of $100 per month for single people receiving Ontario Works. This is an excellent first step and should be a top priority.
More broadly, in setting rates for OW and ODSP the government needs to determine the level of income required for good health. The Commission struggled to balance social assistance rates with what a person working full-time at minimum wage earns. While incentives to work are important, the adequacy of minimum wage is a labour market issue, not a social assistance issue. Labour market policies that raise and enforce legislated minimums are the most cost-effective ways to ensure that the rewards of work are higher than the rewards of social assistance.
Increasing earnings allowances
Being able to earn income from paid employment while receiving social assistance is an excellent way to smooth the transition into work. However, the current social assistance system penalizes people who try to work by clawing back social assistance income.
The Commission recommended that people on social assistance should be able to earn up to $200 per month without having their income clawed back. This is an important step that will help people to become established in the labour market and should be implemented as soon as possible.
Bringing everybody up
There has been some concern across Ontario that some of the Commission’s recommendations risk stripping supports away from ODSP in order to improve OW. The chief concern has been the recommendation to pay for the increase in OW rates by eliminating the Special Diet Allowance.
It is critical that in reforming the social assistance system we focus on ways to improve health and well-being for all, and this means bringing everybody up rather than trading off the needs of different groups of people who receive social assistance.
The Special Diet Allowance provides an opportunity for people to meet their specific health needs and is essential for many Ontarians to maintain good health. The government should look for alternative ways to pay for the increase to OW rates.
There has also been concern in the disability community about the recommendation to merge OW and ODSP into a single benefit with a standard rate. A basic 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 homogeneous category; different people need different supports.
While merging the two programs may create an administratively simpler system, if the Province proceeds with this recommendation it is important to focus on the needs of individuals and to resist the urge to create a ‘one-size fits all’ social assistance system.
The renewed energy for social assistance reform is welcome. It provides a once-in-a-generation moment to ensure good health for a population that has long been overlooked.