A new study in Florida found a higher death rate for those on welfare-to-work programs than those receiving social assistance who weren’t pushed to work and at risk of losing their benefits.
This is the first time that researchers have been able to analyze long term effects of these programs and, unsurprisingly to those working in social research, the outcomes are not great. Though the difference is numerically small, it remains statistically significant and makes an important link between health outcomes and social policy decisions.
In Ontario, our own “workfare” program was first introduced in 1997 by Premier Mike Harris. It has since been modified and is now called Ontario Works, and there has been little analysis on whether those on welfare were transitioned into to meaningful, gainful employment.
However, what we do know is that income, poverty and the lack of good jobs with benefits are a key social determinant of health. We know that income inequality is on the rise in Canada. We know that groups who are exposed to precarious employment and low incomes suffer from a number of adverse health impacts, like mental health, chronic disease and workplace injuries. We know that the precarious employment conditions faced by racialized Canadians has health impacts and therefore requires policy interventions.
Coercing social assistance recipients into precarious work leaves little to no room for improving the health outcomes of people accessing these programs.
To lessen the impact of negative health outcomes on social assistance recipients in Canada, we need reforms to improve the program, rather than coercion. Employment and training need to be opportunities for those on social assistance, not requirements for receiving assistance. The program needs to be about investing in individuals from a holistic perspective. Employment supports must reflect individual needs and labour market requirements.
People face different labour market barriers, and therefore a variety of supports and programs will work best. Last year, the Wellesley Institute and partners provided advice on how to build a health-enabling social assistance system to inform the Commission for the Review of Social Assistance in Ontario. We recommended that a high-performing social assistance system must be flexible, person-centred, and health-enabling. This includes treating people with dignity and respect, something that a welfare-to-work program often lacks. Improving access to primary care, building community capacities, and identifying collaborative program and policy development opportunities will all work toward supporting people on social assistance, rather than creating a situation where an ultimatum could threaten their health and well-being.