Social assistance is a lifeline for Ontarians living in poverty and without it, many people would be destitute. The new plan to reform social assistance announced by the Ontario government cuts rate increases in half, leaving some of those in most need with less money to live on. The new plan also penalizes people who try to work by implementing narrower rules around how much they are allowed to earn.
Nearly one million Ontarians who rely on social assistance live in deep poverty. A single person living on Ontario Works (OW) can receive a maximum of $721 per month for basic needs and shelter, but to live in the GTA they would need $1,485 per month just to afford nutritious food and a healthy home. Good social assistance reform means considering what it actually costs to live a healthy life in Ontario. To lift those on social assistance out of poverty and into good health, we need to raise the income floor to a minimum that would allow people to thrive.
A recent Wellesley Institute report estimates that it costs at least $46,186 (after tax) to thrive in the GTA. This includes enough income to afford the basic necessities such as a healthy home and nutritious food as well as being able to pay off debt, save money and afford healthcare. That means that it would take an additional $35,000 annually to close the income gap between what people on social assistance get and what they need to thrive.
The new plan aims to get people to work instead of providing a minimum income they can survive on. However, the new claw back of 75 per cent on earnings over $300 a month may in fact make work less attractive. After all, would you work for a quarter of your pay?
We did the math: To earn a thriving income a person receiving OW would need to make an additional $125,000 to make up for the money taken by the claw back. This is more than triple the median income of working adults in Toronto. We know that people receiving social assistance are more likely to experience systemic barriers, that compounded with poverty, means they are more likely to be in low-wage and precarious work. It will be very difficult for social assistance recipients to use work as a way to make enough money to live a healthy life.
The reforms challenge the underlying principle of social assistance – to support people when they need it. The new plan won’t work to support vulnerable people. Instead, it could further marginalize them.
Ontarians need a social assistance system that improves health. This starts with decent incomes that allow people to live with dignity and respect. It means providing health benefits and employment supports to help those who can work get into healthy jobs that they can keep. Raising the OW assistance benefit to ensure that those who need social assistance can afford the basics like good food and shelter is part and parcel of this.
To develop a social assistance system that promotes health, we must begin by implementing policies that lift people out of poverty, rather than moving them further in.