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Social Assistance Review

Building Justice

Brief to the Social Assistance Review Commission


The Social Justice and Advocacy Committee of the Anglican Diocese of Toronto

“The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.” — First Epistle of John, 4:21

We thank the commissioners, Frances Lankin and Munir Sheikh, for this opportunity to express our concerns relating to the social assistance system in the province of Ontario, and the need for a comprehensive strategy to end poverty in this province.

As Anglican Christians, we begin with the belief that all human beings are beloved children of God, and all have an inherent right to live with dignity and hope in shared community.

We believe that the health of our society is measured by the well-being of the most vulnerable – including children, seniors and the disabled – and we believe that social policy should be directed to ensuring that no one is marginalized or left out. We are only too aware of the existence of deep poverty in Ontario; we see it every day, in those who come to the doors of our churches and rectories (clergy residences), to our food banks and community meals, because they cannot afford to feed themselves and their families. We see it in those who sleep on the floors of our parish halls because they have no other shelter. We see it in members of our parishes who are struggling to survive on social assistance or minimum wage employment. The recent information from Statistics Canada, reporting that Ontario’s poverty rate had risen to 13.1% by 2009, and that poverty increased most sharply among single adults and seniors, came as no surprise to us.

We, as church communities, are doing all that we can to meet these needs. But we cannot do so by ourselves. The government, which represents the collective interests of all citizens, must also do more to ensure that no one has to go hungry, that no one has to live in a rooming house infested with bedbugs, that no one has to sleep on a church floor in the middle of winter.

We are fundamentally opposed to any policies which create divisions between social groups, or which limit the ability of any members of our society to live full and decent lives.

We believe that many others inOntario, from different faith backgrounds and none, also share these values. We appreciate the work that the McGuinty government has already undertaken on poverty reduction, and we note that poverty rates among children actually decreased in Ontario between 2007 and 2009. This is a strong demonstration of what is possible when the government acts on behalf of the vulnerable.

We are confident that you, the Social Assistance Review Commissioners, share these values as well. We offer you our thanks for the difficult role that you have taken on, and we hope that we will be able to work together to ensure that we can build a province, and a country, in which no one will need to live in poverty.

We see much in your Discussion Paper that is encouraging. However, there are also aspects of the paper that cause us some concern, and areas where we would like to see the Commission take a stronger and more immediate stand.

Deep poverty

At current benefit levels, those people who receive social assistance live in deep poverty; that is, their incomes are less than 80% of Ontario’s Low Income Measure – After Tax (LIM-AT). A single adult on Ontario Works, in fact, receives less than 40% of LIM-AT. A lone parent on Ontario Works or a single adult on ODSP would receive less than 70%.

It is not possible to live a decent or dignified life under these conditions. In concrete terms, these statistics translate into choices between paying the rent and feeding the children, they translate into lining up at crowded food banks, living in substandard housing surrounded by gun violence, doing without necessary medications, sending children to school hungry.

They translate into the inability to look for work effectively, because a social assistance recipient often cannot afford a Metropass or telephone service or appropriate clothing for a job interview. The deep poverty experienced by social assistance recipients is, in itself, often a barrier to employment.

We ask the Commissioners to propose a comprehensive social assistance reform plan that will end deep poverty in Ontario by 2015 and leave everyone living at least at the poverty line. This plan should include linking social assistance rates to the cost of living, so that rates will continue to be adequate in the future.

We also ask that the Commissioners recommend no clawbacks or benefit reductions be applied against earned income for people on social assistance at least until they reach LIM-AT.

We also ask that the Commissioners recommend, as a first and immediate step, a $100/month Healthy Food Supplement to the Basic Needs Allowance for all adults receiving OW or ODSP.

The myth of the “welfare wall”

We are concerned that some of the language of the discussion paper perpetuates a division between social assistance recipients and the “working poor” when it suggests that trade-offs must be made between “adequate income support” and “ensuring that people are better off working.”

There is no evidence that social assistance recipients who are able to work do or would avoid employment, and a great deal of evidence that most of them would prefer to be employed. We hear this day by day from those who come to our churches. Punitively low social assistance rates are not needed to “motivate” people to seek paid work.

Indeed, inadequate levels of social assistance create very significant barriers to finding employment. Inadequate social assistance levels mean a lack of access to transportation, a lack of access to telephone service, poor nutrition that creates ill health and low energy levels, and a limited ability to access continuing education and training. Deep poverty is demoralizing and demotivating. There is good reason to think that higher rates of social assistance would mean that those who can work would be more able to seek and obtain employment.

Moreover, we strongly maintain that the best way to ensure that people are “better off working” is to ensure that everyone working full-time, full-year can live well above the poverty line on what they earn. This is not currently the case in Ontario – a single earner, working full-time, full-year for minimum wage, would still fall significantly below LIM-AT. In 2008, one-third of allOntariochildren living in poverty (as defined by the federal Low Income Cut-Off Before Tax measurement) were in families with full-time, full-year  hours of work.

We know that the Commissioners have stated that the adequacy of wages is “outside the mandate” of the review, but we do not believe that questions of social assistance rates can be treated outside of the overall picture of poverty in Ontario. We strongly encourage you to address the larger labour market issues.

In particular, we ask that the Commission call for a continuing rise in the minimum wage, with a second set of 75-cent increases that would bring the basic minimum wage to $12.15 per hour in 2014, and index the minimum wage annually thereafter.

Furthermore, ODSP recipients who are unable to hold paid employment or cannot work full-time should not be penalized for this. ODSP rates must be set at least at LIM-AT, with additional resources made available to meet specialized needs. Furthermore, the current clawback system effectively punishes ODSP recipients who are able to work part-time. We ask that no clawbacks or benefit reductions be applied against ODSP recipients at least until their income reaches LIM-AT.

Finally, we ask the Commissioners to recommend that the Ontario government retain and expand the Special Diet Allowance so that all those who require medically prescribed special diets, whether social assistance recipients or qualifying low-income workers, are able to have full access to the essential food.

The benefit approach problem

The Commissioners have proposed the possibility of special-purpose benefits for all low-income people, whether social assistance recipients or low-income workers. We believe there are strengths to this approach, but also some potential problems, and would advise proceeding with care. Special-purpose benefits should not become a substitute for the basic core income required to meet daily living requirements. Instead, we would endorse benefits as a complement to a system that provides more adequate rates of social assistance and a higher minimum wage.

It is anticipated that the Commissioners may propose a housing benefit for all low-income people. We would be prepared to endorse this approach under certain conditions, primarily if this benefit is a complement to adequate core income rather than a substitute for it.

We would also offer the following cautions. First, the addition of a housing benefit must not be offset by a reduction in the shelter allowance portion of overall social assistance benefits, as this would leave social assistance recipients only marginally better off. Second, such a benefit should provide full coverage for shelter costs above 30% of gross income. Third, no distinction should be made between families and individuals – no low-income person should be required to pay more than 30% of gross income for housing.


We are aware that a provincial election is very close, and that we do not know who will form the next government or what their attitude will be to poverty reduction strategies. With this in mind, we ask that the Commission release an interim report by September, outlining a possible plan for ending poverty in Ontario. We further ask that the Commission take immediate action in recommending the $100/month Healthy Food supplement.

We thank you for your attention to our concerns, and we hope that we can continue to work together to build a province in which no one lives in need.

The Reverend Maggie Helwig

Chair, Social Justice and Advocacy Committee

Anglican Diocese of Toronto



  1. […] The Executive Summary of the SJAC brief follows and the full brief can be found in the Social Assistance Review tab. […]

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