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PFO Bulletin #13 – Creating Communities of Shared Opportunity across Ontario

Time for a Civic Declaration on Decent Work and Basic Incomes for All

The Social Planning Network of Ontario (SPNO) was active and instrumental in making child poverty a major issue in the 2007 election and, in partnership with the Interfaith Social Assistance Reform Coalition (ISARC), SPNO mobilized the Poverty Free Ontario (PFO) network to keep poverty eradication alive in communities across Ontario during the 2011 election. Many of PFO’s cross-community partners revived the “Let’s Vote for a Poverty Free Ontario” election sign campaign in the just concluded 2014 provincial election, which produced a majority Liberal government.

Where does SPNO/PFO go from here with the poverty eradication agenda under the new political scene?

Retrospective on Impact of SPNO’s Poverty Eradication Strategy

Seven years ago in its spring meeting on Toronto Island, SPNO set an advocacy agenda for active promotion among its member organizations’ communities across Ontario in the provincial election scheduled for October 2007. The record of the Toronto Island discussion clearly states the intent to demand that timelines and targets be established, first for the reduction of child and family poverty within five years and then a plan for its elimination in Canada’s sesquicentennial year 2017. Several major strategies in a poverty reduction and elimination plan were proposed:

  1. “sustaining employment”, so that no families in which a member worked full-year, full-time remained living in poverty; and
  2. a full child benefit ($5400 per child in poorest families) to supplement employment income in recognition of the public interest in supporting the costs of raising children.

In addition, the SPNO members reaffirmed the importance of strengthening the community support base (e.g. early learning, affordable housing, community support services) as an important component of a poverty reduction strategy.

SPNO recognized decent work and putting an end to working poverty as the cornerstone of its child and family poverty reduction agenda. The record of SPNO’s discussion in 2007 clearly addressed the false contentions of the “welfare wall” proponents. SPNO rejected the notion that people had to be kept in destitution as an incentive to leave social assistance to accept low wage work.

While the $100/month Healthy Food Supplement proposal and the Put Food in the Budget (PFIB) campaign would not be shaped for two years, the SPNO meeting in the spring of 2007 laid the groundwork for new benchmarks to end both working poverty and deep poverty, calling for a “just differential” between social assistance rates and the minimum wage. Notes of the SPNO meeting indicate that the goal by 2017 should be to get working people 20% above the poverty line and people on social assistance up to the poverty line, first by making sure no social assistance recipient lived in deep poverty (below 80% of the poverty line).

These commitments among the SPNO membership on Toronto Island in 2007 became the central messages for a cross-community awareness campaign over the summer and fall months running up to the election. Along with SPNO’s report naming Ontario the “child poverty centre of Canada”, the community meetings and media coverage contributed to Premier McGuinty’s promise to develop a child and family poverty reduction strategy within the first year of his new administration, if re-elected.

Since 2007, SPNO’s positions on sustaining employment supplemented with essential income supports to reduce and eliminate poverty have been incorporated into major campaigns focusing on raising the minimum wage (WAC’s Minimum Wage Campaign)[1] and moving social assistance rates towards adequacy (Put Food in the Budget)[2]. The Liberal Government has shown movement towards the demands of the Minimum Wage Campaign. And, persistent cross-community advocacy since 2009 has resulted in resolutions expressing support for the $100/month HFS in 25 Ontario municipalities and recommendation by the Social Assistance Review Commissioners, leading to the first real income increase in social assistance rates in the 2013 provincial budget in twenty years.[3]

Decent Work and Basic Income Strategies through the Life Cycle

In recent years, the debate about a Guaranteed Annual Income or Basic Income has re-emerged as it has periodically since the 1960s. The prospect of some kind of clear, simple universal income security program is alluring. Expressions of interest from all parts of the political spectrum suggest a potential political consensus on a guaranteed income, which is as unusual as it is attractive.

Where does SPNO’s position on poverty eradication and inequality fit in this current discourse? Does the Basic Income approach require us to abandon or re-think our public policy stance since 2007? How should SPNO position itself on this issue as the new provincial government takes office and the federal election approaches in 2015?

If “basic” income means establishing a floor of income adequacy that enables individuals and families to maintain their health and dignity by meeting the cost of daily living needs, then clearly SPNO supports such policy. Some part of the population disconnected from the labour market temporarily or permanently by their situation and personal circumstances (e.g. single parents, persons with disabilities) will require income support programs at basic, adequate levels to ensure that they do not live in poverty. Most will depend on some form of paid work to get by. Too many of these community members in part-time and precarious employment at minimum wage levels cannot meet their basic daily living needs with their earnings.

Social policy emphasizing the workforce as the route out of poverty subjects people to low wage and precarious work and promotes “workfare” for those dependent on income supports, while reliance on income support programs only inevitably sets rates well below adequacy in terms of basic living requirements. How can labour market and income support policy work together to ensure that poverty is eradicated for all in Ontario?

We already have income support models that recognize the relationship between work and income for vulnerable parts of the population. Old Age Security and the Guaranteed Income Supplement for retiring workers introduced in the 1970s to supplement private pension income and CPP benefits had a major impact on reducing seniors’ poverty to below 4%, and were indexed to protect their purchasing power against inflation. Granted, the GIS and CPP need enhancement now to maintain these gains.

It is possible to extend this supplemental income support approach to other stages of life in which people have varying attachments to the workforce. We can think of strategies for decent work and basic income across all stages of the life cycle, which recognize an appropriate and mutually reinforcing relationship between labour market participation and income support requirements as the following suggests:

  1. Children and youth (0-25) – Income support for this stage in life is important largely in the context of supporting young people in their families. A full National Child Benefit for families recognizes the need for lower income families to have help with the additional costs of raising children (Campaign 2000’s call for increasing the current maximum of $3200/child up to 18 years to $5,500 is consistent with the Basic Income approach suggestion). A Youth Income Benefit for young people 18 to 25 years would enable “debt free” learning and training opportunities and transition to work in their formative years.
  2. Early and middle adulthood (25-55) – Working age and family adults need positive work experiences in their early adult years and social engagement through employment that allows them to make important civic contributions. It should be a requirement of public policy that decent work with living wages and sound social protections (pension, health, and other social insurances) be available to all working age adults. Working age adults without decent work should have the assurance of community and civic employment at living wages through the non-profit and local public services sectors. Decent work is becoming ever less available in the low wage labour markets of the corporate sector.
  3. Later adulthood (55+) – Begin to extend eligibility for the GIS down from full retirement years to this stage of adulthood. This would protect incomes as needed for adults phasing down from active engagement in the labour market prior to full retirement. The GIS must be upgraded for those fully withdrawn from the workforce when their incomes after OAS and CPP and other pension income are inadequate. This would restore full poverty elimination for seniors, a Canadian legacy first achieved in the 1970s.
  4. Appropriate income and service frameworks must be available to support the extraordinary social circumstances for persons with disabilities and persons with chronic physical and mental health conditions.

This approach does not substitute income for employment earnings, nor does it compel workforce participation in order receive income support. It recognizes that earnings from employment are an important component of maintaining a livelihood, but that that labour market detachment at any stage of the life cycle should not condemn one to poverty. Both wage protections and income guarantees are required.

Reframing Decent Work

Since 2007 (and for many of us a decade or more before), SPNO and its cross-community partners in the PFO network have focused a lot of attention on income adequacy – increasing social assistance rates to end deep poverty; raising the minimum wage to get full-time, full-year earners above the poverty line. This concentrated attention has led to some gains and movement of the policy debates in a good direction but we may be allowing ourselves to remain confined to “minimalist” positions when it comes to framing what we think decent work should be. Notably, more communities are not just advocating for raising the minimum wage but are also for work at a “living wage”.

The availability of good and decent jobs should be seen as much of a challenge today as it was at the height of the industrial revolution in the 19th century.[4] Today, in a post-industrial society, good and decent jobs seem a faint hope. Our youth in particular struggle to establish any secure foothold in the labour market, and, even with higher levels of education, remain subject to mostly short-term and precarious employment. In the face of increasing tuition and living costs for post-secondary education, many youth accumulate high levels of debt and graduate into an economy that offers mostly poor paying service jobs. We are at risk of condemning our younger generations in particular to dismal, unfulfilling futures and chronic spells of poverty and exclusion. Productive employment in these formative early years of labour force participation is critical.

While good jobs in the traditional economy appear to be scarce, there is no lack of work needed to create a truly sustainable society. It is time to reframe the notion of good jobs in terms of work that needs to be done to build and strengthen our social and civic infrastructure. We need to re-balance our economy from one tilted heavily towards private wealth creation and concentration to one of collective stewardship of our human and financial resources offering shared opportunity for all.

Quality employment guarantees are critical for youth and younger adults as they enter the workforce supplemented with income programs as they make transitions through their working lives. Government incentives and partnerships with the private sector (retail, commercial, industrial) should be directed toward the creation and support of decent, well-paying, career development jobs. There is hope that the private sector might recognize its role in contributing to a collective purpose that adequately compensates workers while securing a fair return on investment.

Realistically, however, we should look to city governments and the community sector to show leadership, as the City of Seattle is doing by making a commitment to the highest minimum wage ($15/hour) in North America in response to a strong community advocacy movement.[5] Even recently here in Ontario, the Put Food in the Budget campaign mobilized across communities to secure resolutions in support of the $100/month Healthy Food Supplement in 25 city councils, which was cited by the Social Assistance Review Commissioners in their own recommendation in support of the HFS.

After forty years of market-driven neo-liberal social and economic policy, it is time to disengage from the tyranny of global capital and to restore social justice from the ground up with a Civic Declaration on decent work and basic incomes for all. As in Seattle, city governments and the community sector must join their voices to demand senior government support for good jobs in business and in public services. The continued importance of work by nurses, teachers, firefighters and librarians as well as in the social, environmental, recreational and arts and culture sectors must be respected. Governments should support community and civic employment strategies in the public and non-profit sectors that enable youth and younger adults to start life with a solid foundation of productive employment that builds and strengthens our social, cultural and environmental infrastructure. Civic Declarations directed to this collective purpose would both stimulate economic development and grow the next generation of an active and engaged citizenry.

We have a common stake in creating communities of shared opportunity for all. Investing in work that protects and enhances our environment, supports civic and community well-being, and grows local economies will produce social and economic benefits for all. Pursuing this path will demand the activation of a collective stewardship that engages all parts of the community in a discussion of how to work together for the common good. What work needs to be done to create and sustain the kinds of communities that we want to live in? What can business, labour, civic and community leaders do to contribute to that shared purpose? How can the role of the non-profit sector be expanded as a source of decent work and sustainable development?

Creating Communities of Shared Opportunity

We need to re-frame decent work and basic incomes in terms of solidarity, with a mission to create communities of shared opportunity for all across Ontario, while recognizing the complexity of actual human experience through different stages of the life-cycle. We have an obligation to offer other guarantees, most critically that our younger generations will have the opportunity to make their contribution to sustainable social and economic development through the application of their energies, skills and talents in the public, civic, non-profit, and corporate sectors.

We call on cities and communities to lead the way in framing Civic Declarations for decent work and basic incomes to eradicate poverty within this decade, and to create communities of shared opportunity for all across Ontario.

To this end, it is proposed that the Social Planning Network of Ontario join with its network of community leaders and organizations in Poverty Free Ontario to engage our communities in a discussion of the central tenets of a Civic Declaration, to test its resonance as a herald for structural change, and to explore its implications for both local and cross-community ground-swelling action for social justice in Ontario.

Peter Clutterbuck
Marvyn Novick

For further information contact:
Peter Clutterbuck, SPNO Senior Community Planning Consultant
(416) 653-7947   cell (416) 738-3228
Web site: www.povertyfreeontario.ca

[1] http://www.workersactioncentre.org/issues/minimum-wage/

[2] http://putfoodinthebudget.ca/

[3] A 4% increase to the OW Basic Needs Allowance in the 2013 provincial budget ($26/month) was the first real income increase for OW recipients since the 1995 cuts of 22%, all other 1%-2% adjustments since 2003 being for cost of living, and at that were below the annual rate of inflation in several of those years.

[4] Industrial manufacturing jobs in the 19th century were low paying and conducted in unsafe and unhealthy working conditions until unions organized for collective action among labourers and social reformers introduced public controls and regulations for improved employment

[5] http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jun/07/seattle-minimum-wage-fifteen-dollars-fight; http://prospect.org/article/revolt-cities

PDF version of Bulletin #13

PFO Bulletin #12 – PFO on the 2013 Ontario Budget

Budget provisions inadequate but . . .

Community gets Government attention on single adults

After several years of community advocacy, the Ontario Government finally acknowledged in its 2013 Budget that single adults on social assistance are living in especially severe conditions of hardship and hunger. Once again, the Government adjusted social assistance rates by 1%, the current rate of inflation, but added a $14 top-up for single adults without children on Ontario Works.

Community advocates for a poverty-free Ontario have been campaigning since 2009 for benefit increases that would begin to relieve the tremendous deprivation of single adults living in deep poverty at less than 40% of the official Ontario poverty line. They can finally claim a clear breakthrough with the Government on the plight of single adults, even if the actual rate increases this year are not at the level needed.

Contending that the Government was taking a “balanced approach” to achieving “prosperity” and “fairness,” Finance Minister Charles Sousa actually tips the balance in the direction of continuing austerity.

In March, an assembly of more than 100 Poverty Free Ontario partners from more than 20 communities across the province framed a Six-Point Plan for a social justice budget.   Measuring the 2013 Budget against the PFO Plan shows some minimal gestures towards social justice, but no clear leadership or firm conviction to pursue a social justice agenda for the most vulnerable Ontarians living in deep poverty.

Measuring the Budget against the Six Point Plan for Social Justice in Ontario

1) Increase the Basic Needs Allowance by $100/month for OW and ODSP recipients as the first step towards adequacy in social assistance rates.

Clearly, the Government has come nowhere close to the $100/month rate increase for which PFO has been advocating especially for single adults on OW/ODSP, a group entirely neglected in the 2008 Poverty Reduction Strategy.  A $14 top-up for single adults on OW on a general overall adjustment of 1% does, at least, indicate that this part of the social assistance caseload is now on the Government’s radar.

Still, these provisions are again misrepresented in the Budget as rate “increases”, when, in fact, they are partly a cost of living adjustment to maintain the purchasing power of current rates.[1] The additional 1% for 2013 in the Ontario Budget does match the year over year increase in the Consumer Price Index at March 2013 and will provide $6.06 more a month to a single adult on Ontario Works. The $14 top-up will bring the single rate up by $20/month to $626.06, which for the first time since 1995 will be an increase in the real income for single adults (2.3%).

While not the $100/month increase that PFO has been pushing for, this is at least a small step towards real rather than strictly inflationary increases.

ODSP single adults, however, do not appear to be included in the $14/month top-up, the shocking rationale being that this will “begin to reduce the disparity in rates between ODSP and OW recipients.” (p. 91). This is an early signal that the potential future “harmonization” of the OW and ODSP caseloads would be more about reducing benefits to the lowest common denominator than moving all recipients in the direction of decent living standards.

2) Index OW and ODSP rates, starting immediately, to keep up with the annual inflation rate.

The 2013 Ontario Budget once more provides a discretionary one-year commitment to a cost of living adjustment but does not index social assistance rates to the cost of living in the same way that seniors’ benefits are adjusted annually to the rising cost of living.  Especially in a year when the actual increased cost of living is low compared to previous years (1% compared to the 2%+ range in previous years), the Government missed an opportunity to show not only a strong gesture towards fairness but also a confidence in its economic recovery program to cover off cost of living adjustments for social assistance recipients in future years.

3) Ensure that all increases to social assistance or changes arising from the proposed integration of the current programs do not lead to any reductions in basic needs and housing allowances for persons currently receiving ODSP and Ontario Works, or to cuts in benefits such as the Special Diet Allowance or the Disability Worker’s Benefit.

There is nothing in the 2013 Budget that indicates any of the provisions will be implemented at the cost of existing programs such as the Special Diet Allowance or the Disability Workers’ Benefit. This is encouraging, although measuring success by what programs are saved is a comment in itself on our state of mind in an austerity climate. The community should remain vigilant that these programs are not threatened as budget provisions become implemented.

4) Introduce an earnings exemption for social assistance recipients with working hours so that a 50% clawback on earnings does not apply on at least the first $200/month earnings, and preferably not on the first $500.

It has been known for several months that the Government intended to allow social assistance recipients with working hours to keep the first $200/month of earnings without a clawback on their OW/ODSP benefit.  This is one of the minor recommendations of the Social Assistance Review, and will make a difference in the lives of social assistance recipients with some working hours.  To its credit, the Government will clawback earnings higher than $200 monthly at a rate of 50% and not 57% as recommended by the Social Assistance Review Commissioners. Frankly, it is unconscionable that any clawback applies to recipients who find work until their earnings begin to approach the poverty line.

5) Commit to the principle that the minimum wage should ensure a full time, full year worker earns an annual income 10% above the Ontario Income Poverty Line [LIM 50], and to an implementation plan that will achieve that goal.

The 2013 Budget makes no changes in the minimum wage and promises only to study the issue for possible future action by setting up an Advisory Panel.  It is difficult to take the Government’s commitment to job creation seriously if it allows minimum wage earners working full-year, full-time to still fall about $1,000 below the poverty line annually. The Raise the Minimum Wage campaign has made the case definitively for bringing the minimum wage to 10% above the poverty line, and there is more than enough evidence that this will stimulate the economy and not cost jobs.

The Government shows only timidity here when it should be showing leadership and bold action.  The community should call for the terms of reference of the Minimum Wage Advisory Panel to include a plan for raising the minimum wage over a reasonable period of time to 10% above the official poverty line for full-time, full-year earners.

6) Index the minimum wage immediately to keep up with the annual inflation rate.

Without any action on point #5, there was, of course, no action on this front either.

Related Budget Provisions

The 2013 Ontario Budget contains other measures related to PFO’s Six Point Plan:

  • While the Budget document avoids the use of the term “adequacy” when speaking of social assistance rates, it states that the Government will follow up on the Commissioners’ recommendation to develop “benchmarks to support a consistent method for setting social assistance rates in the future” (p. 91).  Presumably, this will be done by setting up an independent “rates board” as previously championed by MPP Ted McMeekin, now the Minister of Community and Social Services. If this is the latest route to rate adequacy in what seems to be an interminable journey, the community should insist that the rates board report out well before the next budget cycle is complete on the rate targets necessary to achieve adequacy and a two-three year timeline for getting there, with the first significant instalment due in the 2014 Budget.
  • The Budget increases liquid asset limits for single adults on OW from $606 to $2,500 and for couples from $1,043 to $5,000, a long overdue measure first proposed in the 2008 Poverty Reduction Strategy. OW recipients will be allowed to receive gifts of up to $6,000 per year without affecting their benefits, which provides some relief from what has amounted to a tax on contributions from family and friends to the well-being of social assistance recipients.
  • The Budget is picking up on its implementation schedule of staged increases to the Ontario Child Benefit after a one-year hiatus in the 2012 Budget, increasing the maximum OCB benefit to $1,210 per eligible child this year and a final increase to $1,310 in July 2014. This is one year later than promised in the 2008 Poverty Reduction Strategy and the 2009 Budget.

Fairness Demands Bolder Action

There was hopeful talk during the lead-up to this Budget that the Government may be considering some actual moderate increases in taxes or restoration of corporate taxes that have cost the public treasury so much in recent years.  It is disappointing that the 2013 Ontario Budget promised to retain the tax cuts that have been implemented, while boasting that for yet another year its deficit is projected to come in under original projections by several billion dollars.

A truly balanced approach between prosperity and fairness would acknowledge that the Government has some fiscal room for greater fairness to the most vulnerable in Ontario by its faster than anticipated progress in reducing the deficit.  Applying even less than one-third of the resources available from the ahead of schedule deficit reduction to Ontario’s poorest citizens would not only improve their health and well-being but would also contribute significantly to stimulating local economies across the province.

Social assistance reform was proposed by the Government in its 2008 Poverty Reduction Strategy. After five years of study and consultations and as the Government sets up another Cabinet Committee to develop a second Poverty Reduction Strategy as required by legislation, it is a sad commentary that such minimal progress on social assistance reform has been made.  The path to real improvement in the material living conditions of Ontario’s poorest is proving to be long and tortuous. It demands a Government and Parliament with both the conviction and the courage to show strong leadership on a social justice agenda.

Community advocates for people living in deep and working poverty across the province can take some credit for the small gains made in the 2013 Budget.  We got the Government’s attention. We now need to help embolden its commitment to further serious reform.

For further information contact:

Peter Clutterbuck, SPNO Coordinator
(416) 653-7947   cell (416) 738-3228
Web site: www.povertyfreeontario.ca

[1] The 1% cost of living adjustment takes effect in September 2013 for ODSP recipients and in October 2013 for OW beneficiaries, which is also the month that the $14 top-up is introduced.

PDF Version of Bulletin #12

PFO Bulletin #11 – PFO’s Six Point Plan for Action on Poverty Eradication

A Good Faith Start to a Social Justice Agenda:

Prior to her election as Leader of the Ontario Liberal Party and becoming the new Premier of Ontario, Kathleen Wynne declared that she wanted to be known as the “social justice premier”.   This statement raised some hopes and expectations among community advocates for low income people for serious action on social assistance reform and the minimum wage.

Since assuming leadership of the Government, Premier Wynne has not been very specific about her social justice agenda. The Throne Speech in March included only a few brief references to affordable housing and several recommendations in the recent social assistance reform report by Commissioners Lankin and Sheikh.  Besides generally referring to interest in helping social assistance recipients move into employment, the only specific recommendation that the Premier has expressed an interest in acting on is the $200 per month earnings exemption for social assistance recipients with working hours before implementation of the clawback on their earnings.

Neither has either opposition party leader has shown any greater interest in serious social justice action to this point. Mr. Hudak’s policy proposals harken back to the worst visions of workfare and punitive practices of the Mike Harris days.  Ms. Horwath has shown no inclination to go beyond the earnings exemption recommendation in her negotiation on the spring provincial budget with the Premier.  Social justice for the most vulnerable is searching for a champion among our political leadership in Ontario.

It has been almost five years since the social assistance reform was announced as one of the cornerstones of the Government’s Poverty Reduction Strategy.  Such lengthy research, consultation and study were not required for an earnings exemption to be the only specific measure under consideration.

The budget to be delivered in April offers an opportunity for the Premier to show “good faith” in her expressed intention to be the “social justice premier” for all Ontarians.  To that end, Poverty Free Ontario invited Premier Wynne to meet with PFO delegates from across Ontario for a discussion of their proposals for a social justice agenda.  Sadly, the Premier’s Office has not formally acknowledged nor responded to the invitation.

Still, more than 100 PFO leaders from more than 20 communities all across Ontario came together in Toronto for a day on March 8.   They discussed and endorsed the following Six Point Plan for a Social Justice Agenda:

  1. Increase the Basic Needs Allowance by $100/month for OW and ODSP recipients as the first step towards adequacy in social assistance rates.
  2. Index OW and ODSP rates, starting immediately, to keep up with the annual inflation rate.
  3. Ensure that all increases to social assistance or changes arising from the proposed integration of the current programs do not lead to any reductions in basic needs and housing allowances for persons currently receiving ODSP and Ontario Works, or to cuts in benefits such as the Special Diet Allowance or the Disability Worker’s Benefit.
  4. Introduce an earnings exemption for social assistance recipients with working hours so that a 50% clawback on earnings does not apply on at least the first $200/month earnings, and preferably not on the first $500.[1]
  5. Commit to the principle that the minimum wage should ensure a full time, full year worker earns an annual income 10% above the Ontario Income Poverty Line [LIM 50], and to an implementation plan that will achieve that goal.
  6. Index the minimum wage immediately to keep up with the annual inflation rate.

The PFO community leadership assembled on March 8 asked that invitations be made to the Premier and Opposition Leaders for meetings with a cross-community PFO delegation prior to the budget to discuss a social justice agenda based on the preceding Six Point Plan.   

For further information contact:

Peter Clutterbuck, SPNO Coordinator
(416) 653-7947   cell (416) 738-3228
Web site: www.povertyfreeontario.ca

[1]It is fitting to footnote here that Commissioners Lankin and Sheikh’s recommendation for the $200 earnings exemption in their report actually proposes that the clawback on additional earnings be increased from the current 50% to 57% — not indicated in the body of their report but in footnote #46 on page 73, reducing the benefit to recipients of even this minimal measure of reform.

PDF Version of Bulletin #11

PFO Bulletin #10 – Final Report on the Social Assistance Review: Limited Improvements, Serious Concerns

Commissioners Frances Lankin and Munir Sheikh released their long-awaited report Brighter Prospects: Transforming Social Assistance in Ontario on October 24, raising both hopes and anxieties in the community that received it. The Report proposes a major restructuring of social assistance, funded mostly by eliminating existing benefit programs in the short-term and proposed internal administrative savings in the longer roll-out, including a projected decrease in the disability caseload from 5% to 3% a year.

Poverty Free Ontario (PFO) and its community partners across the province have consistently advocated to the Ontario Government for an end to deep poverty for people on social assistance and an end to working poverty for low income earners.  PFO has urged the Commissioners to support those commitments since they assumed their task in early 2011.  While long-term social assistance system reform may be undertaken, PFO has stressed the urgency of implementing immediate action to improve the material living conditions of low income people, given that research shows they have a significantly higher incidence of death, suicides and chronic illnesses than the population as a whole (Wellesley Institute, 2008).

The Commissioners have recognized that current benefit levels to people on social assistance are inadequate and recommend a rate increase that, if implemented now, would provide some improvement in the living conditions of social assistance recipients.  The overall thrust of their report fails, however, to address the structural conditions that maintain currently high poverty levels in Ontario, and, in a number of ways, presents serious risk to the most vulnerable part of the social assistance caseload, persons with disabilities.

Several Income Improvements Proposed

There is no question that the Commissioners’ mandate was undermined by Government action in recent years to cut and reduce programs and benefits to people on social assistance (PFO Media Release, Oct. 25). These Government measures were severe enough that the Commissioners’ resolve to continue their work is admirable.  Since the 2011 provincial election, an austerity agenda introduced via the Drummond Report and the 2012 Ontario Budget has only further constrained the climate for serious positive change.

The Commissioners do recommend some measures that could make some difference in the lives of social assistance recipients if implemented now.

  • The Commissioners state that current benefit levels are inadequate to meet daily living costs and acknowledge the work of the Put Food in the Budget campaign (PFIB) and municipal council support across the province in calling for an immediate $100/month increase to all single adult recipients as a “down payment” on adequacy.[1]  At a cost of $770 million, this would be the first real income increase for people on social assistance since the 22% rate cuts in 1995. Regrettably, the Commissioners recommend that part of the cost of that increase be paid for by eliminating most of the Special Diet Allowance (SDA, $200 million) and a work-related benefit for people with disabilities ($30 million).
  • The Commissioners propose that recipients be allowed $200 in an earnings exemption above their monthly benefit before a withdrawal rate of 50% on additional earnings applies. With existing federal and provincial tax credits ($1,076) and the maximum earnings allowance ($2,400), a single adult’s annual income could reach $11,776, still in deep poverty at only 60% of the income poverty line, but a significant increase over the current benefit level.
  • The Commissioners recognize that the creation of a single standard benefit rate can negatively affect the income position of certain parts of the caseload (disabled persons under different living conditions) and recommend “grandparenting” for these situations. This provision is explicitly not recommended, however, for disabled people on SDA, who have a higher incidence of medically-related food deficiencies.
  • The Commissioners propose raising the asset limits allowable for OW recipients to the same level as ODSP recipients ($6,000 for singles and $7500 for couples), and allowing up to $60,000 asset exemption for RESPs for the children of recipients.

The following summarizes PFO’s major concerns with respect to the Report’s provisions for major transformative and structural reform of social assistance.

Propose a Minimal Subsistence Standard for Adequacy

Although the Commissioners agree that adequacy is an issue for people on social assistance, PFO has serious concerns about their perspective and approach to adequacy in a “transformed and restructured’ system. They dismiss the Low Income Measure (LIM, 50% of median income) as the benchmark for adequacy and propose a new “Basic Measure of Adequacy” (BMA), which is a subsistence measure that returns to the charity standard of a bare minimum.

The Commissioners’ dismissal of the LIM as an income measure for adequacy is specious. LIM is a measure of income deficiencies.  Both the United Nations and the European Union recognize 50% of median income as a minimum level for low income people to meet their basic living conditions and to participate in community life.  The LIM is a measure of inadequacy, not just income.

The table following compares the proposed BMA for a single person and sole parent with one child compared to the Low Income Measure, which the Ontario Government adopted as its official income poverty line in its Poverty Reduction Strategy in 2008.




Basic Measure of Adequacy

(Proxy for Ontario, 2011)

Low Income Measure (adjusted to 2011)

Official Ontario Income Poverty Line


BMA as Percent of Official Income Poverty Line (LIM)

Single Adult




Single parent with child




The proxy BMA for Ontario used by the Commissioners in their report would keep both a single person and a single parent with one child at about 70% of the LIM, Ontario’s official income poverty line.  While the BMA would alleviate the income situation of recipients from their current depth of poverty, as a long-term measure of adequacy it would still condemn them to lives of hardship in deep poverty below 80% of the LIM.

It is a serious concern that in converting social assistance into a system that measures recipients in terms of their “distance from the labour market”, the Commissioners have sacrificed the notion of the suffering and hardship experienced by their “distance from the poverty line”.  Surely, this is the true measure of minimal adequacy in terms of both employment earnings and income supports.

Risks in a Standard Rate with “Building Blocks”

The Commissioners propose a basic standard benefit rate for social assistance recipients modified for persons sharing living accommodations (86% of the combined standard rate) with income supplements for health, disability and sole support parenthood outside the social assistance system and available to all Ontarians on low incomes.

While the Commissioners’ wish to simplify the system is understandable and their consideration of the needs of low income working people is admirable, there are risks involved in this approach that should be recognized.  People on social assistance have often been denied access to benefits when they are made available to a broader population, such as the claw-backs that occurred with implementation of the National Child Benefit in the 1990s.  There is legitimate concern that adjusting the basic rate in a way that establishes a lower standard and includes supplements for certain conditions creates more opportunities for targeted cutting or for introducing supplements in a way that do not necessarily ensure families that the “building blocks” will leave them better off than when they received a benefit based on family size.  Notably, when the Ontario Child Benefit was introduced to “take children out of the social assistance system”, the Basic Needs Allowance for parents on social assistance was reduced by the same amount (Human Dignity for All presentation, slide 11, 2011).  The OCB then became the target for austerity in the 2012 Budget when the Government decided to delay its implementation for two years.

Safeguards will be required to ensure that the standard base rate does not become just a floor of inadequacy for a set of income supplements that may be subject to variable Government commitment to maintain.  This is one of the reasons that PFO and PFIB have always argued that the $100/month Healthy Food Supplement should be incorporated into the Basic Needs Allowance rather than be separately administered, which the Commissioners have adopted in their recommendation for the rate increase.

Institutionalizing Divisive Trade-offs Among Low income People

In PFO Bulletin #9, we expressed concern about the trade-offs that the Commissioners were proposing in their Discussion Paper (February 2012) for setting a benchmark for social assistance rates.  The Commissioners now propose to institutionalize these trade-offs in terms of finding a satisfactory balance among three objectives: adequacy, fairness between social assistance recipients and low income working people, and a financial incentive to work.

Although the Report recommends removing the distinctions between OW and ODSP recipients into one harmonized pool, it wishes to retain the separation between people on the system and the working poor, when both have the same interest – access to incomes allowing stable and decent living conditions.  The balancing “trade-offs” test not only perpetuates the myth that the interests of social assistance recipients and working poor people are in conflict with each other, but it would also institutionalize this division in the restructured and transformed social assistance system.  This approach in no way challenges the Government nor the larger public to assume a moral responsibility to commit to both benefit rates and minimum wages at levels that ensure decent living conditions for all people in the bottom 30% of incomes.

The discussion of the minimum wage as a “reference wage” for determining fairness also raises concern. Referring to the upcoming review of the minimum wage, the Report argues that changes in the minimum wage should be linked to “Ontario’s economic performance, labour market conditions, and earnings distribution.” PFO contends that a true benchmark of adequacy for low income earners is an hourly minimum wage ensuring that a full-time, full-year worker earns enough to live out of poverty.

PFO continues to call for Government to set a decent floor for living conditions for all low income people in Ontario, which means:

  1. Social assistance rates that bring all recipients above 80% of the official Ontario income poverty line (i.e. out of deep poverty);
  2. Raising the minimum wage to $12.50 by 2014 so that all full-time, full-year workers earn income that would bring them 10% above the poverty line.
  3. Setting the clear objective of creating labour market conditions and job opportunities that establish a “living wage” as the true benchmark of an inclusive, healthy and equitable society.

“Embracing Workfare”?

Commenting on the Social Assistance Review, Toronto Star columnist Martin Regg Cohn (October 25) writes that the Commissioners “have implicitly embraced the once controversial goal of workfare (where possible).”  This is a disturbing conclusion for a policy journalist to come to in his analysis of the recommendations of the Social Assistance Review.

PFO does not believe that the Commissioners have any resolve to compel social assistance recipients to work for their benefits at rates well below the minimum wage, which is the truest definition of workfare. Still, Regg Cohn’s commentary illustrates the clear thrust of the Report’s recommendations towards moving people aggressively off of social assistance and into the labour market, albeit with supports. Indeed, the clear benchmark for success for all recipients is to close or at least reduce their “distance from the labour market”.  They very clearly see labour force attachment as the primary route to social assistance reform.

PFO agrees that gainful employment is the preferred way for low income people to meet their living requirements and participate fully in community life when circumstances allow them to join the workforce.   There is a concern, however, that the Commissioners’ focus on employment overemphasizes reducing the social assistance caseload and associated costs rather than ensuring recipients move into stable, decent jobs. For example, the proposed performance and accountability measures for employment services provided by a mix of public, private and non-profit providers would emphasize caseload reductions and successful labour force attachment, which will require careful vigilance against “creaming” the most job-ready candidates and safeguards against short-term job placements that don’t hold.   Managing, monitoring and evaluating progress on moving recipients aggressively into employment may well consume much of the administrative savings that the Commissioners suggest will be generated by a transition from a “surveillance” model to pay for a highly individualized labour force attachment model.

The Commissioners acknowledge the poor job market and the prevalence of precarious versus sustainable employment opportunities in today’s economy.  They have established some key relationships with the business community and indicate the readiness of a number of corporate leaders to assist with promoting the hiring of people from the social assistance caseload, including persons with disabilities.  The Commissioners think that the restructured system in addition to supporting recipients with employment training and other services should also be more responsive to the needs and requirements of employers in preparing people for the job market.

Social assistance and an integrated employment and human services support system will be expected to ensure that individualized Pathways to Employment plans are prepared and implemented for all recipients. Responsiveness to the needs and requirements of the labour market as identified by employers is also expected at the same time as a panel of corporate leaders works to create understanding and readiness in the business community for hiring and employing people ready to leave social assistance.

A key question remains, however, with respect to the quality, stability and decency of the jobs that will be available to people ready to exit social assistance.  PFO wonders as well whether the engaged business community will be as ready to support measures of adequacy for people at the low end of the labour market. For example:

  • Would the business panel support a minimum wage at a level that would ensure a full-time, full-year worker earns an income that brings her/him out of poverty?
  • Would the panel promote and contribute to job creation that establishes “living wages” as the desirable standard for employment in any community?

Most Vulnerable at Highest Risk

It is not surprising that the ODSP Action Coalition, advocating for people with disabilities on social assistance, has expressed grave reservations about parts of the Social Assistance Review Report. PFO shares those concerns.

Integration and harmonization of systems always carries greater risks of lowering the bar of benefits to the lowest common denominator than raising those at the low end towards the higher end.  People on ODSP have been recognized as having higher living costs as a result of their limiting physical or mental conditions, which has been traditionally recognized in terms of a higher Basic Needs Allowance than people on Ontario Works.  Even when the Harris Government cut OW by 22% in 1995, it froze but did not cut the ODSP rate.

In terms of the impact of even the modest improvements that the Commissioners recommend in the short-term, the real costs would be borne by part of the ODSP caseload.  ODSP recipients would receive a disability supplement on top of the new standard rate so that they would not during transition to an integrated system be worse off than what they currently receive. But, it is proposed that the $100/month increase in the standard rate to all recipients be paid for partially ($200 million) out of the elimination of Special Needs Diet, which a higher proportion of persons with disabilities count on for medically necessary nutrition. Plus, another $30 million of the rate increase cost would come from elimination of a work related benefit to persons with disabilities.  The Commissioners explicitly recommend that these income losses not be avoided through supplements nor that current SDA users be grandparented to continue receiving their medical nutrition benefit ($100-$250/ month).  The net result for many ODSP recipients will be a significant reduction in monthly income.

With this start to social assistance reform, people on ODSP are well-advised to be cautious about how transformation of the system will improve their living conditions in the long run.  There are not many targets set in the Commissioners’ Report but one clear objective is to reduce the increase in the ODSP caseload from 5% to 3% a year and there are clear savings projections made from moving people with disabilities off of social assistance into employment.

This is a sensitive area, which the Commissioners acknowledge.  Many people with disabilities on the system want to and can work with support on a full-time or part-time basis.  But the aggressive push to labour market attachment raises anxieties about narrowing the definition of disability and unreasonable expectations that threaten the loss of eligibility should recipients show any reluctance or perceived “non-compliance” with the Pathways to Employment planning process.  Plus, there is some anxiety about transferring administration of the social assistance system to the municipal level, since ODSP has been administered at the provincial level.

In many ways, the most vulnerable part of the social assistance caseload is assuming the highest risks in the proposed transformation of the system.


In the end, the Commissioners’ Review is just a report. There remains no Government commitment to act on any of the recommendations including the urgently needed benefit increase. First responses from the Minister of Community and Social Services indicate no willingness to do anything about social assistance rates.

And, of course, the Ontario Legislature is prorogued, unlikely to sit again until mid-winter, and even then any meaningful Government business may well be delayed further by a provincial election.

The cynical promise of social assistance reform in the 2008 Poverty Reduction Strategy was betrayed by an interminable process to set up and undertake a review on which the Government shows no interest in acting.

Regardless of further debate about the long term shape of social assistance reform, the Commissioners have, at least, clearly acknowledged the community’s consistently expressed call for a significant increase in the social assistance rates to single adults by $100/month as well as a modified rate increase ($86/month) for recipients living together as a first step towards adequacy.

While the Provincial Parliament may not be in session, there is still a political moment to demand public declarations of support by the Opposition parties, Liberal candidates for the party leadership, and all MPP backbenchers for the immediate measures in the Commissioners’ Report that will alleviate the living conditions of people on social assistance. Specifically, that would be:

  1. The $100/month rate increase to single adults and the modified rate increase for recipients living together;
  2. The $200/month earnings exemption before benefit claw-backs; and
  3. Increasing the asset limits to $6,000 and $7,500 for singles and couples on social assistance respectively.

Contrary to the Commissioners’ recommendations, the community should insist that maintaining the SDA is critical to the health and well-being of many recipients, especially those with disabilities.

PFO joins other voices in the community and the labour movement in challenging the political claims of austerity that Ontario is without fiscal capacity to address deep poverty for those on social assistance and working poverty (PFO Bulletin #4). Revenue recovery through reversing tax cuts over the past decade remains the responsible political path for a just social order in Ontario.

For further information contact:

Peter Clutterbuck, SPNO Coordinator

(416) 653-7947   cell (416) 738-3228

pclutterbuck@spno.ca                                                                  Web site: www.povertyfreeontario.ca

[1] The $100 monthly increase would be added to the current standard base rate for single recipients now at $599. Two people sharing accommodation, whether related or not, would each receive 86% of the standard rate including the increase on the grounds that sharing accommodation should reduce their living expenses.

PDF version of Bulletin #10

PFO Bulletin #9: Social Assistance Review Discussion Paper 2: Missed Opportunity, Even Backsliding, as Austerity Agenda Looms

The Social Assistance Review Commissioners issued a low‐key release of their “Options” paper on its web site late Thursday, February 2 (see http://www.socialassistancereview.ca/commission‐publications ). Although promoted for months as an “Options Paper”, it is actually framed as Discussion Paper 2: Approaches for Reform. While various ways to go for reform of social assistance in the long‐term are presented in a technical policy terms, the paper lacks any clear, compelling overall direction to end poverty for social assistance recipients.

Questions and problems raised are barely advanced from the first Discussion Paper of last fall and, on some issues such as establishing a poverty measure for adequacy in benefit levels, the Paper actually moves the process backwards.

The Commissioners ask for further input on their discussion questions from the community by March 16. Their final report with recommendations is targeted for release in June 2012.

This interminable reform process, started almost more than three years ago with the Government’s Poverty Reduction Strategy in December 2008, offers no hope to people on OW and ODSP for any short- or even intermediate-term relief from their current intolerable living conditions. There is no compelling vision or clear overall goals proposed for ending deep poverty (Deep poverty refers to people living below 80% of the Low Income Measure – LIM).

There is nothing in the Discussion paper which speaks about the urgency for action to our political representatives, policymakers, the public nor the low income community and its supporters. Too many adults and children in Ontario continue to experience monthly cycles of chronic hunger and hardship which must be addressed now and cannot await grand plans for reform in the distant future.

Most alarming about this failure to capture the attention of our political leadership and the general public about this social injustice is the looming austerity agenda of the upcoming Drummond Commission report, which promises to suck up all the policy oxygen in the coming months and can hold only more misery for the most vulnerable among us. People on social assistance have been experiencing austerity since the 22% cut to rates in 1995, along with limited cost of living increases since 2003. The Commissioners provide no minimal bulwark against the assault on the social sector about to come down. Low income people lack a policy champion in their time of greatest need.

Main Areas Covered in Discussion Paper 2

Approaches for Reform reports out in the following sections:

Chapter 1: Reasonable Expectations and Necessary Supports to Employment. Moving social assistance recipients into the workforce is established as the primary way to get people out of poverty. This section concentrates on the need for more effective assessment and case management systems and employment support services to help social assistance recipients find and keep jobs. Pre- and post‐employment services across the different jurisdictions need to be better integrated and particular support considerations are necessary for people with disabilities who can work. Mechanisms for better communications and connections with employers must also be set up. Three different administrative approaches are proposed to create a more integrated employment services system.

Chapter 2: Appropriate Benefit Structure. The Commissioners indicate that they wish to meet three objectives in their recommendations; (1) Benefit adequacy; (2) Fairness between social assistance recipients and low income workers; and (3) Benefit levels that will maintain incentives to work. Most of the chapter devotes itself to the trade‐offs of different approaches to achieve balance among these three objectives. The paper contends that this means determining what a reasonable adequacy measure is indicating that there is no “widely accepted” (p. 24) poverty measure among the three existing choices (Market Basket measure [MBM], Low Income Cut-Off [LICO], and Low Income Measure [LIM]). A second consideration is how to set a “reference wage” fair to working poor Ontarians as the benchmark for when a recipient would leave assistance to enter the labour market. Finally, the paper contends that a reasonable “benefit withdrawal rate” is necessary to make sure that recipients entering the labour market have no unfair advantage over low wage workers who may not have access to supplemental benefits (e.g. access to free special health benefits). The Paper does acknowledge that the nature and condition of the labour market are challenges to achieving a satisfactory trade-off. Several proposed approaches to make the trade-offs are offered in the Paper. A concluding section addresses particular challenges in the benefit structure for people with disabilities on ODSP, who have extraordinary daily living costs.

Chapter 3: Easier to Understand. Complexity in the social assistance system confusing both to recipients and workers needs to be addressed. Complexity must be managed without sacrificing accountability to the taxpaying public. The Commissioners suggest consideration of moving from a “surveillance” and “monitoring” model to a more targeted “audit‐based” and “risk management” approach that would ensure compliance with system requirements (pp. 38-39). The Paper also gives attention to the treatment of assets, which affects the financial resilience of recipients trying to make the transition to work. Several approaches are proposed for relaxing limits on asset accumulation and a clear suggestion that there be one total asset limit set rather than limits designated by different asset classifications.

Chapter 4: Viable over the Long term. This short section (pp. 45-48) raises the question of whether (a) to continue the separate delivery of OW and ODSP; (b) to set up a “one‐stop delivery model that would integrate Ontario Works and ODSP at the local level” (p. 46); or (c) to have municipalities administer case management and employment services while the province delivers the income support component.

Chapter 5: An Integrated Ontario Position on Income Security. This chapter addresses the need for achieving greater compatibility and complementarity between social assistance and other service and support programs primarily administered under federal jurisdiction.

Chapter 6: First Nations and Social Assistance. In this chapter, the Commissioners report on holding separate consultations with members of First Nations communities and OW administrators. They indicate that these discussions informed their overall approaches to reform but that issues unique to the needs of First Nations communities are also addressed in this chapter. First Nations people see social assistance as a “social and economic trap” (p. 54), creating barriers to community economic development. New relationships must be developed between the federal and provincial governments and First Nations communities need to have more control and autonomy over how assistance is provided. Current agreements do not adequately cover First Nations members with disabilities, creating accessibility problems with respect to ODSP. Greater First Nations control over and access to employment services and special supports such as addiction services are also required.

Chapter 7: How to Provide Input. The Commissioners invite responses to the discussion questions provided at the end of each section by March 16, 2012 via the web site or email or by postal mailing (p. 61).

Missed Opportunity to Raise a Sense of Urgency for Action

By keeping their sights firmly fixed on long‐term overall reform of the social assistance system, the Commissioners fail to convey any sense of urgency about addressing deep poverty in the short- to intermediate-term and frame no clear goal in that regard either. Any hope for concentrated public attention on the situation of the poorest part of the province’s population is at grave risk with the low-key release of this report just several weeks before the Drummond Commission comes down with its promised austerity agenda.

No specific reference is made to the implications or prospects of the Drummond Report for people living in deep poverty despite its likely implications for the lower end of the labour market, which the Commissioners propose as the best route out of poverty for OW and ODSP recipients. A Paper that argues the need for better integration and coordination of services and benefits among all jurisdictions seems oblivious to the political and economic environment in which its policy approaches are being placed.

That is why the Commissioners should have extended themselves beyond a “policy consultant’s” role in this Paper to advocate for attention and concern that any forthcoming austerity agenda not create further hardship and misery for people living in poverty. The Commissioners have enough ammunition to so engage the debate prior to the Drummond Report’s release. They report hearing from 2,000 people in consultations across the province, receiving 700 written submissions. Since 2008, the Social Planning Network of Ontario/Poverty Free Ontario has visited 25-30 communities six to eight times each and knows the kinds of stories that the Commissioners have heard from low income people and the agencies and workers who try to support them with few resources.

People on social assistance and all living in poverty have told their stories and sorely need a policy champion to draw attention to their interests in the face of the austerity agenda about to come down.

Failing to do so in this interim report and the low‐key, under the radar release may well risk the relevance of the entire reform process as other forces will dominate the policy scene when the Commissioners’ final report is due in June.

Respecting Community Voices Calling for a Healthy Food Supplement

In the supplementary report on What We Heard also released with the Discussion Paper, the Commissioners offer an account of the messages received in the community consultations and submissions. SPNO/PFO’s own analysis of the written submissions posted on the Commissioners’ web site as of December 31, 2011 shows that income adequacy is the primary concern of proponents for reform.1

Four out of five posted submissions (79%) identified income inadequacy as an issue to be addressed in the Social Assistance Review, making a variety of recommendations to improve the adequacy of social assistance rates. Of all issues addressed in the submissions posted on the Commissioners’ web site, income adequacy was the most common area of concern and suggestions.
Overall, the resounding message is that rates are unquestionably low, with 63% of all submissions, and 70% of submissions addressing income adequacy recommending social assistance rate increases to cover the real costs of living.

Over and over again, submissions detail that rates are too low to provide for decent, affordable housing and a healthy diet. Forty-four per cent (44%) of all submissions recommend increasing shelter allowances to better reflect the full cost of decent housing. Of the submissions addressing income adequacy, 14% advocate for a full housing benefit.

Thirty per cent (30%) of all submissions advocate for a rate increase to provide for food and nutrition. Eleven per cent (11%) of the submissions addressing income adequacy recommend the immediate allocation of a $100 a month Healthy Food Supplement.

Notably, the Commissioners’ Discussion Paper suggests that one approach to an appropriate benefit structure could be a housing benefit available to all low income Ontarians to “ease the challenge of ensuring fairness as between people on social assistance and low‐income earners” and “[s]ince it would also help people who are struggling with housing costs but not receiving social assistance, it could help reduce the number of people who need to seek social assistance” (p. 29).

The emphasis on “fairness” between social assistance recipients and working poor people is problematic and divisive as the next section of this Bulletin discusses. Poverty Free Ontario has previously pointed out that a housing benefit that does not provide full coverage and protect food money again relegates social assistance recipients to the end of the line when it comes to meeting basic daily living costs.

Current housing benefit models target reaching only 200,000 low income people out of the 1,689,000 living in poverty (PFO Bulletins #2 and #8 at https://povertyfreeontario.ca/category/bulletin/).

Even a partial housing benefit is not designed and ready for implementation with any degree of dispatch. While a full housing benefit may be part of long‐tern reform, more immediate options require serious consideration and implementation.

Although the need for income increases for access to healthy food was clearly expressed in submissions to the Commissioners, including a Healthy Food Supplement, the Discussion Paper makes no reference to this as an option. The accompanying document What we Heard, offers one short acknowledgement: “There was support for the proposal to provide a monthly $100 healthy food supplement for all adults receiving Ontario Works or ODSP“ (p.18).

The Discussion Paper’s discounting of a major proposal widely supported and consistently voiced across the province since 2009 does not adequately respect community input. Further, the Healthy Food Supplement is the only income adequacy recommendation that has received official endorsement by municipalities across the province. Sixteen municipalities across Ontario have passed resolutions calling for the implementation of the $100 a month Healthy Food Supplement.2 A recently passed resolution by the City of Kingston calling for the immediate introduction of the Healthy Food Supplement, also adopted and forwarded to Premier McGuinty by the City of Belleville, notes the need for urgent action by stating “inadequate benefit levels lead to monthly cycles of chronic hunger among recipients creating health consequences with both personal and economic costs to us all.”

An appeal with this level of consistent support from communities, public health units and municipalities across this province and growing since the Social Assistance Reform Commissioners started their reform process merits more serious consideration than the Discussion Paper affords it.

Going Backwards on the Official Measure for Adequacy

It is unfathomable why Approaches to Reform re‐opens the debate on what is a reasonable official poverty measure in its discussion on an appropriate benefit structure. Claiming ‘the absence of agreed‐upon benchmarks for adequacy” (p. 24), the Discussion Paper introduces the three measures currently used nationally – Low income Cut‐Offs (LICO), Low income Measure (LIM), and Market Basket Measure (MBM) – contending that “[n]one of these is widely accepted as a poverty measure” (p. 24).

This is remarkable, given that the Ontario Government has already set the LIM as the poverty measure in its Poverty Reduction Strategy and that this whole Social Assistance Review process emerges from that Poverty Reduction Strategy. Further, the LIM is well‐established internationally by the United Nations and the European Union.3

Poverty Free Ontario hopes that re‐opening a discussion about which poverty measure to use has nothing to do with the unfavourable comparison of the LIM to the other two measures in relation to current benefit levels as shown in Appendix B (i.e. current rates show individuals and recipients in different family sizes in deeper poverty when the LIM is used).

Getting the LIM established as the Ontario Government’s primary measure of poverty in the 2008 Poverty Reduction Strategy was a major achievement for the advocacy community at the time. The issue was resolved then. The Social Assistance Review hardly advances the policy discussion by re‐opening it now just before it makes its final recommendations. This is moving social assistance reform backwards.

Adequacy Framed as an Issue of Balance between the Expectations of Recipients and Workers

Approaches to Reform addresses the issue of adequacy in terms of the “Appropriate Benefit Structure”. Adequacy in benefit levels has, of course, been the main thrust of Poverty Free Ontario, given our travels to communities around the province since 2007 and exposure to stories of chronic conditions of hunger and hardship told by recipients and the people who work with them.

In launching their discussion on adequacy, the Commissioners offer some hope that the issue of decent living conditions will frame this debate and their proposed solutions. The Commissioners report on the great disparity between the costs of basic necessities and benefit levels for individuals and families reported by the Ottawa Public Health Department. The Commissioners state: “We heard from many people that the benefit structure should more closely reflect the cost of living, including the cost of nutritious food, secure housing and community participation” (p. 20).

The Paper, however, quickly narrows the discussion from adequacy in terms of what people need to live with some measure of decency and dignity to the tension between what social assistance recipients should expect and what low wage earners will accept as fair in relation to their own low incomes. The Discussion Paper misses the opportunity to reflect broad community concern expressed in the consultation period about inadequacy in both social assistance rates and minimum wage levels. The “fairness” discussion shifts the focus to relationships within the low income community (i.e. a somewhat sanitized debate about the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor). This approach in no way challenges the Government nor the larger public to assume a moral responsibility to commit to both benefit rates and minimum wages at levels that ensure decent living conditions for all people in the bottom 30% of incomes.

The Discussion Paper hinges the adequacy discussion on establishing a satisfactory balance among the following “trade-offs”:

  1. an agreed upon measure for adequacy (an already resolved issue as indicated earlier in this Bulletin);
  2. a “reference wage” for low income workers that social assistance rates should remain below; and
  3. a “benefit withdrawal rate” that avoids giving social assistance recipients any advantage over low income workers as they enter the labour market.

Poverty Free Ontario does not see these issues as “trade-offs” for addressing poverty in this province. Rather they are matters demanding that Government set a decent floor for living conditions for all low income people in Ontario, which means:

  1. Setting a schedule for achieving adequacy by raising social assistance benefit levels over a reasonable amount of time so that no recipient is living below 80% of LIM (i.e. ending deep poverty in the province) and reducing the general poverty rate to below 4% by 2020. Of course, PFO also supports the position of the Put Food in the Budget initiative that the path to adequacy be commenced with the introduction of the $100 a month Healthy Food Supplement.
  2. Raising the minimum wage to $12.50 by 2014 so that all full‐time, full‐year workers earn income that would bring them 10% above the poverty line (minimal “reference wage”).
  3. Setting the clear objective of creating labour market conditions and job opportunities that establish a “living wage” as the true benchmark of an inclusive, healthy and equitable society (standard “reference wage”).

The unfortunate thrust of Chapter 2: Appropriate Benefit Structure is to perpetuate the myth that the interests of social assistance recipients and working poor people are in conflict with each other. Framing the adequacy discussion as an issue of fairness within the low income community is divisive and misleading.

Rather, their interests are joined in expecting a significantly raised bar for all low income people and demanding fairness and justice from a society that has structured the economy and social provision in a way that excludes and contains people struggling in the bottom third of the income scale. This is the constructive approach that the Commissioners could champion in their reform proposals rather than reinforcing past and current policy frameworks that pit social assistance recipients against working poor Ontarians.

Re-directing “Reasonable Expectations”

The Discussion Paper establishes up front that reform hinges on the “reasonable expectations” that as many social assistance recipients as possible participate in the workforce. The first two sentences of Chapter 1 state the driving force for the Commissioners review: “The government has identified employment as a key route for individuals and families to escape poverty. We agree that one of the best ways to help people to move out of poverty is to help them find work” (p. 5). The persistence of working poverty in Ontario even during periods of strong economic growth belies this glib assertion.

In our experience travelling to communities across the province, we know those on OW and ODSP who can work want to do so but there is great difficulty in getting that firm foothold in the current labour market. The vast majority of recipients hold “reasonable expectations” of a better life enabled by securing good jobs with decent wages, and are hardly motivated to remain in deep poverty or even just hovering at or slightly above the poverty line.

Poverty Free Ontario contends that there should also be a “reasonable expectation” for the provincial government to provide social assistance benefits at a level that allows recipients to meet the basic costs of the necessities of life and to live with some measure of health and dignity. Further with regard to low wage workers, there should be “reasonable expectations” that:

  1. The provincial government ensure that the basic minimum wage enables an earner working full‐year, full-time to live above the poverty line;
  2. Employers recognize that in addition to meeting the economic test of a fair return on capital for conducting a successful business, that they also have a responsibility to meet the “social test” of paying a basic minimum wage that assures an employee working full‐year, full-time lives above poverty; and
  3. Both government and the private sector recognize that the route to economic revitalization lies not in low and minimum wage structures but in employment based on ‘living wages” and decent working conditions that will foster not only a healthy and productive workforce but will also stimulate and sustain economic recovery by creating stronger consumer demand for goods and services.


The social assistance reform process drags on as any momentum offered by the Ontario Government’s Poverty Reduction Strategy recedes into distant memory. The Strategy did nothing for adults on social assistance when released in 2008, except promise a reform process that would address their intolerable living conditions.

That process took more than a year to initiate, and by the time terms of reference were framed and the Commissioners were appointed, it was 2011 with an eighteen month study process before a final report in mid-2012. After that, who knows how long before any serious implementation of the final report’s recommendations will be undertaken.

Meanwhile, Ontario has reached unprecedented poverty levels and the real incomes of people on social assistance have not even kept up with the rate of inflation over the last two years. There is more than enough evidence that tolerating poverty is harmful to the health and well-being of social assistance recipients and to community health in general.

We need continuing strong community advocacy alongside the voices of low income people, even more so as the austerity agenda looms. But, we also need policy champions with the ear of government to not only work on the future design of a more effective social assistance system, but also to propose specific and immediate action that will begin to address the hunger and hardship that recipients are barely enduring now.

Some clear and compelling messages in this regard must be sent to the Commissioners as they enter the last phase of their work.


  1. SPNO/PFO wishes to express its gratitude to Nicole Gagliardi, York University student in social planning, who volunteered her time to review the written submissions to the Commissioners posted to the web site and prepared the first draft of this section of this Bulletin. The Commissioners indicate that they received 700 written submissions. As of December 2011, 183 were posted to the web site, which would seem to be an adequate sample in any case for the conclusions drawn in this section.
  2. Municipal resolutions in support of the Healthy Food Supplement have been passed by the following City Councils: Belleville, Cambridge, Cornwall, Durham Region, Fort Erie, Hamilton, Kingston, Niagara Region, North Bay, Oxford County, Parry Sound, Port Colborne, Sarnia, St. Catharines, Wainfleet, and York Region.
  3. LIM 50 is the official Ontario income poverty measure, i.e. poverty is designated as having an income below 50% of the median income. LIM 50 is also the poverty measure adopted by the United Nations. The income poverty measure of the European Union is LIM 60, i.e. poverty is indicated at income levels below 60% of median income.

PDF Version of PFO Bulletin #9

PFO Bulletin #8: Getting the Housing Benefit Right

The NDP released its anti-poverty platform on Friday, September 16, 2011. Perhaps anti-poverty advocates should be grateful for any nod in this direction, given electioneering by all the parties that is otherwise concentrated on middle class, pocketbook issues.

But any anti-poverty policy is not equivalent to the policy necessary to end poverty in Ontario. The NDP’s commitment to building 50,000 affordable housing units over ten years is certainly commendable as is the promise of a new emergency dental care program for 50,000 low income adults.

The reference, however, to a housing benefit for 200,000 low income individuals and families at a cost of $240 million a year when fully implemented is worrisome. In its policy platform, the Liberal Party also says that it will “consider delivering a new housing benefit for Ontarians who are struggling”.  The plan that the Liberals are entertaining is the same that the NDP has committed itself to.

A housing benefit of this limited scale in a province with 1.7 million people living in poverty does not begin to address the real issue. That issue is the woefully inadequate core incomes of almost 600,000 adults on social assistance and about 800,000 low wage workers who do not earn enough to meet their basic monthly living costs.

A single individual on social assistance lives in deep poverty, $11,300 below the poverty line annually; a single mom with one child lives $9,500 below the line set by the Ontario Government as our official poverty measure. Even a full-time worker earning minimum wage for the whole year falls more than $1,000 short of the poverty line.

These figures indicate that basic incomes for all the necessities of life are inadequate and require increases in social assistance and the minimum wage over the next two-three years to enable low income people to live with some measure of health and dignity.  Unfortunately, until Government job creation strategies reduce the social assistance caseloads and create better paying jobs, the cost of ending deep poverty will be much higher than $240 million for a housing benefit that will go to somewhere between 15% and 20% of the population in need.

But the cost of income supports to end deep poverty would still be just one-sixth as much as the $4.2 billion in corporate tax cuts that will be fully implemented in Ontario by 2013.

A start on the path to income adequacy for people on social assistance would be a $100 a month Healthy Food Supplement for the almost 600,000 current welfare recipients. For the working poor, minimum wage increases over the next three years could bring the full-time worker above the poverty line.

When a government commits to a strategy that deals with the fundamental issue of basic income inadequacy, then a complementary measure such as a housing benefit could support all individuals and families with higher housing costs that threaten to draw from their household budgets for healthy food and other daily necessities.

Poverty Free Ontario has a clear position on the proper place of a housing benefit within its overall plan to poverty eradication:

  • A “two-track” approach to poverty eradication by 2020 – immediate action now (short-term first track) combined with specific action over the next three years (longer-term planned action).
  • Core income proposal 1: Implement the $100/month Healthy Food Supplement now as the first step toward income adequacy to eliminate deep poverty among people on social assistance
  • Core income proposal 2: Develop and implement a schedule of social assistance benefit increases over the next three years to bring everyone on social assistance out of deep poverty and as close to the poverty line as possible.
  • Core income proposal 3: Raise the minimum wage by three annual 75 cent increments starting in 2012 to bring it to $12.50/hr in 2014 (10% above the poverty line for a full-time worker) and index it annually thereafter.
  • Complementary income proposal: Develop a full housing benefit over the next year or so available to all low income people who are still paying more than 30% of household income on housing costs even after the previous core income measures are in place in order to protect their core incomes for basic necessities from high housing costs.

It is time to move beyond partial measures that avoid the structural basis for the intolerable levels of poverty in this wealthy province.  Only commitment to a serious and comprehensive poverty eradication plan combining immediate action on core income adequacy with specific and concrete steps over the next three to four years will end poverty in Ontario in this decade.

PFO Bulletin #6: Getting Poverty Eradication on the Provincial Election Agenda

Poverty Free Ontario is an initiative of the Social Planning Network of Ontario (SPNO).  The objectives of Poverty Free Ontario are:

  1. To make ending poverty a public issue in the 2011 provincial election;
  2. To urge that all political parties commit to a poverty eradication agenda if elected; and
  3. To ensure that all electoral candidates have poverty eradication as part of their platforms and campaigns.

Poverty Free Ontario is a non-partisan initiative. Although the election campaign is only a day old, none of the political parties and very few of the electoral candidates running under party banners have given any indication that a commitment to ending poverty within a reasonable timeframe and with a clear and serious plan is a priority issue in this election. None of the published party platforms give any prominence at all to poverty or its elimination.

While Poverty Free Ontario and the SPNO do not endorse or encourage that Ontarians vote for any particular party or candidates, we do urge Ontarians to question all electoral candidates on their commitment to ending poverty and to make their own individual choices about which candidates and political parties they believe will act to end poverty in this province.

That is why the Poverty Free Ontario campaign is getting its message – “Let’s Vote for a Poverty Free Ontario” – up in signs posted on the properties of supportive individuals and organizations in 16 communities across the province.  The faith community, recognizing the moral and ethical issues of letting 1,689,000 Ontarians live in poverty, is taking some leadership in getting this message in front of the public in many of these communities: www.faithtoendpoverty.ca.

Elections are critical times for citizens to exercise the democratic option of choosing who will govern them. Everyone is encouraged to participate in the democratic process of debate, discussion and voting. SPNO, a non-profit network of 20 community-based social and community development councils across Ontario, is proud to participate in this democratic process in a non-partisan way through the Poverty Free Ontario initiative.

For further information contact:

Peter Clutterbuck, SPNO Coordinator
(416) 653-7947   cell (416) 738-3228
Web site: www.povertyfreeontario.ca

PFO Bulletin #5: What is This Election Going to be About?

Is it going to be about the leader of the governing party winning a third mandate?

Is it going to be about the leader of the opposition party claiming power with a tax-cutting agenda?

Is it going to be about the third party leader riding the momentum of her federal cousins to power or significant gains?

Is the election going to be all about the fortunes of political leaders and their respective parties?

Or, is it going to be about the people of Ontario and the issues that affect their quality of life? Education, health, the environment, jobs, living conditions.

We in the Poverty Free Ontario initiative and representing twenty communities across this province are concerned that 1.7 million children, parents, and individuals in Ontario are living in poverty, the highest poverty rate in the province in the last thirty years.

Only a few short years ago, many of these people never imagined that they would be unemployed, losing their homes, applying for social assistance, and visiting food banks.

What is this election going to be about?

We believe that some part of the election debate must be about the hunger and hardship that so many living in poverty experience daily, weekly, monthly.

And we believe that this discussion must happen during this election not only for their right to live with some measure of health and dignity but also because a poverty-free Ontario would:

  •   be a healthier community for all of us,
  •   make the economy work better for all of us
  •   help the political system better reflect the interests of all of us.

What is this election going to be about?

Poverty Free Ontario is not a political party and we will not be running candidates for elected office.

But, we are convinced of the decency and compassion of the Ontario electorate and that Ontarians will support policies that ensure no one is left behind.

If our politicians and parties will not talk about an agenda to end poverty in this province, then we will bring the question to Ontarians directly.

We will display our support for a Poverty Free Ontario in our election signs and campaign pamphlet during the campaign.

We will encourage people to visit www.povertyfreeontario.ca and see how poverty in this province could be eradicated within this decade if our provincial government starts to act now.

We will ask our candidates in local debates, on our doorsteps, and through the media: “If elected what would you and your party do in the next four years to end poverty in Ontario?”

We will give our best efforts to make this election, not about the fortunes of political leaders and parties, but about the health and dignity of an Ontario where everyone belongs and all are included.

That’s what this election should be about.

PFO Bulletin #4: Fiscal Options for a Poverty Free Ontario

In 2010, when questioned by supporters of the Put Food in the Budget (PFIB) campaign about where the $100 a month Healthy Food Supplement (HFS) was in the Ontario Government’s agenda, Finance Minister Duncan offered “everything is on the radar but we have to know how to pay for it”.

PFIB supporters and leaders on the Poverty Free Ontario initiative in communities across the province need to be prepared with some arguments about the inevitable questions on how to finance the kinds of proposals for which we are advocating, even though we realize that the basic issue remains the inequitable sharing of the great wealth that exists in this province and country.  On March 10, Anglican Bishop Linda Nichols reminded us of that. Speaking at a PFIB public event at Queen’s Park after a meeting with Finance Minister Duncan, Bishop Nichols said:

We don’t accept the argument that Ontario can’t afford to help the poor. That’s a morally bankrupt position. We live in a wealthy society.”

Poverty Elimination is “Self-financing” Over Time

We know that allowing people to live in poverty costs our healthcare system in Ontario about $2.9 billion annually (OAFB Cost of Poverty Report, 2008), which is about 18% of the 2011 Ontario deficit.

Research at the University of Toronto by Ernie Lightman, Andrew Mitchell and Beth Wilson tells us that a $1,000 increase in annual income to the poorest fifth of households in Ontario will result in 10,000 fewer chronic conditions and 6,600 fewer disability days lost at work every two weeks (Poverty Is Making Us Sick, 2008).

Notably, PFIB’s proposed Healthy Food Supplement (HFS) would provide $1200 in increased annual income to social assistance recipients, which would produce the scale of savings to the healthcare system noted above by the U of T study.

Since Health is one of the Ontario Government’s priorities, the personal as well as the economic benefits should put the HFS on the government’s radar.  Since there are almost 600,000 adults currently on social assistance, this would cost about $700 million. This is a very high caseload because of the recent recession and would be expected to come down as the economic recovery helps more recipients leave the system.

Fiscal Options Exist

It is hard, of course, to convince politicians with arguments of long-term pay-offs when their horizons do not extend beyond the date of the next election.  Hard economic times and affordability are used as excuses for inaction, even though there was no political resolve to address the issue when the economy was doing well either.

In good or bad economic conditions, governments always have fiscal options. High tax Nordic countries with the lowest levels of poverty and strong economies have demonstrated that committed and competent governments can work on multiple priorities at the same time. Candidates for elected office in the upcoming provincial election can be challenged to consider the fiscal options that exist to implement measures like the Healthy Food Supplement in the short-term and to end poverty in Ontario in this decade.

Option #1: Maintain Competitive Corporate Tax Rates at 2009 Levels

The 2009 Ontario Economic and Fiscal Outlook presented by Finance Minister Duncan projected a $4.5 billion cut to corporate income taxes between 2009 and 2013 as a way to make Ontario business more competitive in the North American market.

Actually, we will be more competitive by 2013 than we were in 2009, when our combined federal and provincial tax rates at 33% were already below all rates projected for the USA (39.5%) and the Great Lake States, our main jurisdictional competitors. Last year a KPMG competitiveness study placed Canada second only to Mexico and way ahead of the United States on a list of “tax friendly countries for business” (Toronto Star, May 12, 2010).

The Ontario Government’s objective is to reduce rates by a further $2 billion so that by 2013 the combined federal (also coming down) and provincial corporate tax rates will be 25%, making Ontario’s rate more competitive than even the lowest corporate rate in the US – the State of Texas (36%).

Surely business in Ontario can compete on more than just “price” (e.g. education, skill and quality of workforce, state of public infrastructure like the education and healthcare systems).  A “Walmartian” competitive strategy based on the lowest “prices” (i.e. corporate taxes) will only further drain the Treasury to the point that it will erode the competitive advantages that we now have in the quality of our public institutions and services.

Do we really have to have corporate tax rates 15% below the American rate by 2013? Even if Ontario were to forego the $2 billion in this corporate tax cut schedule not yet implemented, we would still be 8% below the American rate – reclaiming about $2.0 billion or so to be available for important measures like increasing social assistance so that people in deep poverty can live with some measure of health and dignity.

Option #2: Limit New Tax Benefits to Those in Need

Cutting taxes for individuals and family households also, of course,  promises to be a major part of the upcoming provincial election campaign, and, it appears, that the three major parties will do battle on “taxpayer pocketbook” issues.

While we can point to the opportunity cost to reducing and ending poverty of foregoing corporate tax revenue, it is important to point out that personal income tax cuts also have their social costs. The reduction of the cut in the provincial tax rate from 6.05% in 2009 to 5.05% in 2010 on the first $37,100 of individual earnings cost the Ontario Treasury about $1.3 billion.  This is a socially inefficient use of scarce fiscal resources. Persons with taxable incomes of $37,100 or more each get $370 in tax savings ($740 in households of many wealthy and advantaged couples). In contrast, people on social assistance get nothing. A single working poor parent with a taxable income of $15,000 gets a more limited saving of $150.

This distribution of tax benefits is socially regressive and unrelated to need. It is a poor use of $1.3 billion in tax revenue, when a Healthy Food Supplement would cost half as much, be directed to those most in need, and provide immediate benefit to local economies in communities across Ontario.

An economist has calculated for the PFIB campaign that it would cost the average Ontario taxpayer $100 a year to fund the HFS – i.e. provide every adult on social assistance with $1200 more annually.  While there is political resistance to this investment in the health and well-being of the poorest part of the province’s population, there is no hesitancy to give tax credits to the broad middle class and to broadcast the action.  In 2010, a half-page ad in the Globe and Mail proudly informed middle class families making a household income of $125,000 a year that they will be receiving a $790 tax credit in the form of a rebate because of the introduction of the Harmonized Sales Tax.

Even allowing for some level of tax credit related to the HST change, one wonders if middle class families with household incomes well over $125,000 would be terribly averse to getting only $690 of that rebate if they knew that it would support 579,000 people on social assistance to live with more health and dignity. This might even be more compelling to the taxpaying public if it understood the cost savings to the overall healthcare system that a reduced personal tax credit would bring.

But, the Government does not choose to advertise or promote that kind of understanding to the wider public. Rather, it chooses to maximize the benefit of the tax cut to the broad middle class for its own political advantage and there is no contrary evidence that a Government of another political stripe would have acted differently.

Option #3: Extend Deficit Elimination Period to Meet Our Social Priorities

The Full-Day Early Learning Program launched last year fit the Ontario Government’s clearly expressed Education priority.  In announcing the implementation of this program at a cost of $1.5 billion over three years, the Government gave no indication that it had made any special provision to pay for it.

Therefore, it must be factored into the Government’s deficit financing – that is, the program’s cost is being covered as part of the Government’s deficit management over the next three to five years. The Government is prepared to let this program add to its deficit and extend its deficit reduction period because it believes that Education is an important priority with returns far down the road in terms of the benefits of early stimulation and learning for child development.  It might take a little longer to return to a balanced budget, but the benefits to Ontarians are considered worth the delay.

Similarly, the Government could decide to take the same approach with the HFS or any measure to end poverty in Ontario. It could even legitimately argue that an investment in poverty elimination is one way that it is adhering to its Health priority. As pointed out earlier, in the case of the HFS this is practically “self-financing” over time, given the clear relationship between poverty and costs to healthcare system.


The preceding arguments for financing the Healthy Food Supplement and other needed measures to end poverty in Ontario are compelling. We are under no illusions, however, that they will be readily accepted by the political parties and candidates running for office this October. Even the 21 sitting MPPs who completed the Do the Math survey last year and acknowledged on average that the cost of basic monthly living necessities for adults on social assistance were more than $750 higher than what they received on Ontario Works have taken no serious action to promote the HFS in their caucuses.

Paying for the HFS is not an issue of not having the means or fiscal options to act – it is an issue of the political will to include Ontario’s most vulnerable within a government’s expressed policy priorities.

The alarms are sounding, however, and not from the usual sources. Just this week, the Conference Board of Canada alerted the business community and the public to the growing inequality in our nation (How Canada Performs: Is Canada becoming more unequal? http://www.conferenceboard.ca/hcp/hot-topics/canInequality.aspx ).  The gap between the lower and middle income groups and the highest income groups has grown significantly over the last 20 years.  The Report shows that government tax and transfer programs have had an important effect in reducing income inequality, but these programs have been seriously eroded since the mid-1990s, leading to higher levels of inequality.

Poverty is a collective issue demanding the concerted effort of all governments.  The Provincial Government is responsible for social assistance and labour market policy.  Poverty Free Ontario has proposed measures in these areas that would end deep poverty in the province (i.e. 80% or lower of LIM-AT) and bring the general poverty rate down to levels comparable to the historically lowest poverty jurisdictions in the western world (4% or lower).  We contend that there are viable fiscal options to finance this collective commitment as outlined in this Bulletin.


PFO Bulletin #3: Suggested Questions for Community Discussion with the Social Assistance Review Commissioners

Commissioners Frances Lankin and Munir Sheikh start their consultation visits this week. Their current schedule is as follows:

  • Windsor – June 28
  • London – June 29
  • Hamilton – July 4
  • Niagara – July 5
  • Toronto – July 8, 14, 15
  • Kingston – July 12 (tentative)
  • Peterborough – July 13
  • Thunder Bay – July 20‐21 (tentative)
  • Peel – July 25
  • Timmins – July 26
  • Ottawa – July 27

The Discussion Paper and Workbook for the community consultations on the Social Assistance Review are available at www.socialassistancereview.ca. Communities not on the Commissioners’ schedule are invited to set up their own community “conversations” on the Review and to submit the results to the Commissioners.

Poverty Free Ontario also encourages communities to conduct their own discussions in July-August. In setting dates, we recommend that you avoid the dates on the Commissioners’ current schedule and invite the Commissioners’ attendance even though right now they are committed only to the above community visits.

Asking the Right Questions

In the Discussion Paper and Workbook, the Commissioners interpret their terms of reference as making “recommendations that will enable the government to:

  • Place reasonable expectations on people receiving social assistance to participate in employment, treatment, or rehabilitation and to provide them with supports to do so;
  • Establish an appropriate benefit structure that reduces barriers and helps people find employment;
  • Simplify income and asset rules to improve equity and make it easier to understand and administer social assistance;
  • Ensure the long‐term viability of the social assistance system; and
  • Define Ontario’s position in relation to the federal and municipal governments in providing income security for Ontarians.” (Workbook, pp. 8-9)

The Review’s Workbook goes on to ask a series of questions under reach of the preceding areas. But, at the end of each section, the Commissioners also invite participants to identify “any issues we have missed or misunderstood.” This PFO Bulletin offers some guidance to communities on the Commissioners’ line of inquiry and important additional questions central to the Commissioners’ task.

Reasonable Expectations: A Labour Market with a Basic Minimum Wage Above Poverty

Under the heading “Reasonable Expectations and Necessary Supports for Employment”, the Workbook asks five questions (p. 11) related to:

  • meeting the needs of employers and connecting social assistance recipients with employers;
  • developing the skills of social assistance recipients to better meet employers’ needs
  • making employment services more effective and accessible;
  • reducing multiple barriers to employment for recipients; and
  • connecting people with disabilities better to employment services.

People on social assistance and low income working people have consistently met their personal responsibilities with respect to taking employment:

  • In 2004, 60% of parents and single adults living in poverty were employed but with insufficient earnings to live above poverty.
  • One‐third of all Ontario children living in poverty in 2008 were in families with full‐time, full‐year hours of work (LICO-Before Tax).
  • In terms of education, 80% of low income parents in Canada had completed high school, 50% had some post‐secondary education (2004) and 45% of the unemployed in Canada had completed post‐secondary education studies (2010).

Their main problem is a low wage job market where a single earner working full‐time, full‐year still falls $1,064 below the poverty line.

Poverty in Ontario is a structural issue. Even the Commissioners acknowledge that “questions around what work should pay” is another approach to income security (p. 4). Employment services for people on social assistance, however, will help only if the labour market provides decent work with adequate ages and benefits to enable people to escape and stay out of poverty.

The Commissioners state that the adequacy of wages in the labour market “is outside the mandate of our review” (p. 4). Yet, any reforms proposed to the social assistance system, even improved employment services and supports, will depend on a labour market that provides jobs that sustain individuals and families above poverty.

Poverty Free Ontario recommends that the Ontario Government build on its previous positive action of raising the minimum wage in 75 cent increments over three years to reach $10.25/hour in 2010 by a second set of three annual 75 cent increases starting in March 2012. This would bring the basic minimum wage to $12.15/hour in 2014 and, indexed annually thereafter, would ensure that an earner working full‐year, full‐time would have an income 10% above poverty.

Poverty Free Ontario encourages participants in the community consultations to give the Commissioners permission to address the larger structural labour market issue in their proposals for serious social assistance reform. Let the Commissioners report out on all that they heard, whether within or outside their interpretation of their mandate.

Questions to Commissioners Lankin and Sheikh: 

  • Will you report concerns expressed in the community that the success of social assistance reform and investment in employment services to recipients will depend on labour market policies that provide jobs with adequate wages to ensure earners live above the poverty line?
  • Further, will you point out in your report that Government action to increase gradually the minimum wage since 2008 has started to bring low wage workers out of poverty and should be completed by three additional annual 75 cent increases starting in 2012 that would bring all Ontario earners working full‐year, full‐time above the poverty line by 2014?

Benefit Levels that End “Deep Poverty”

Under the heading “Appropriate Benefit Structure”, the Review’s Workbook asks five questions (p. 16) about:

  • setting social assistance rates;
  • designing benefits that deal with the trade-off between ensuring adequate income support and ensuring that people are better off working;
  • new benefits that could be provided to all low income individuals and families;
  • improving social assistance by changing asset limits and exemptions; and
  • designing and delivering benefits for people with disabilities

The Workbook suggests that there are trade‐offs to be made “between ensuring adequate income support” through social assistance and “ensuring that people are better off working” (p. 4). Unfortunately, this perpetuates the myth of the “welfare wall”, which holds that benefit levels approaching adequacy act as a disincentive to employment for recipients and is unfair to low wage working people.

There is no evidence that social assistance recipients who can work avoid employment in order to retain their benefits. As noted earlier, the main barrier to becoming “better off working” is the quality of jobs at the low end of the labour market, which both denies opportunity for social assistance recipients to et a firm foothold in sustaining employment and also keeps low wage working people in poverty.

Set Rates to End Deep Poverty. At current benefit levels, people receiving social assistance live in “deep poverty”, defined as having incomes below 80% of Ontario’s official poverty measure (Low Income Measure – After Tax, LIM-AT).

Poverty Line
(LIM-AT – 2008)*

Annual Income (2008)*

Basic Income Gap

Single  Adult on OW $18,582 $7,352

(39.6% of LIM-AT)

Lone parent with one child on OW $26,279 $16,683

(63.5% of LIM-AT)

Single Adult on ODSP $18,582 $12,647 $5,935
(68.1% of LIM-AT)

* Using comparable data for 2008 as the latest year for which Statistics Canada has published LIM-AT figures.

In terms of setting social assistance rates, Poverty Free Ontario urges the Commissioners to propose a comprehensive plan to end deep poverty by 2015.

Further, Poverty Free Ontario believes that the Commissioners have a unique opportunity well before their final report date of June 2012 to address the serious hardship and hunger that almost 600,000 recipients are currently experiencing by calling for the immediate addition of a $100/month Healthy Food Supplement to the Basic Needs Allowance for all adults receiving OW or ODSP.

Questions to Commissioners Lankin and Sheikh: 

  • In your final report in June 2012, will you propose a comprehensive plan that would ensure no one receiving social assistance in Ontario is living in deep poverty by 2015
  • Will you issue an interim report or statement following your community consultations and prior to the provincial election that:
    • Expresses your intent to propose a comprehensive plan for social assistance reform to end deep poverty in Ontario by 2015?, and
    • Call for the immediate addition of a $100/month Healthy Food Supplement to the Basic Needs Allowance for all adults receiving OW or ODSP?

No Earnings Claw‐backs While Still in Poverty. In presentations and discussions in twenty communities between March and June 2011, Poverty Free Ontario consistently heard social assistance recipients express frustration at the low earnings exemption level before loss of benefits from employment earnings started and at the high rate (50%) of benefit loss for every dollar earned over the exemption limit. Participants enthusiastically supported the proposal that not one dollar of earnings should be clawed back through benefit reductions until an OW or ODSP recipient’s earnings reached the poverty line.

Benefits for People with Disabilities. Poverty Free Ontario supports the positions of the ODSP Action Coalition on benefit levels and employment expectations for people with disabilities.

Questions to Commissioners Lankin and Sheikh: 

  • Will you propose reforms recommending that no claw-backs or benefit reductions are applied against earned income for people on social assistance until they reach the LIM-AT applicable to their individual or family situation?

Caution on Potential New Housing Benefit for All Low Income People. The Discussion Paper indicates that one possible way to avoid treating social assistance recipients and low income workers inequitably is “to make some benefits available to all low income people, whether or not they are receiving social assistance.” (p. 4) Examples given include the Ontario Child Benefit and the National Child Benefit Supplement for low income parents.

Although not explicitly identified in the Workbook, it is expected that the Commissioners will explore community interest in a housing benefit for all low income people as a way to address the income support issue.

Poverty Free Ontario offers several important cautions on the notion of a housing benefit:

  1. It is critical that a housing benefit for all low income people assure coverage for the portion of the high cost of housing that drains money away from the low income household’s budget for food and other necessities of life. It is generally accepted in Rent-Geared-to-Income provisions that households paying more than 30% of their gross incomes for housing require subsidy in order to meet all their costs for basic living necessities. Housing benefit proposals that Poverty Free Ontario has heard discussed suggest that the 30% threshold is being considered for families, but a 40% threshold is being considered for individuals, which again imposes an artificial divide between the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor. Further, housing benefit models under discussion do not necessarily provide full coverage for the amount over #0% or 40%, but only about three-quarters of the difference.
  2. The introduction of a housing benefit must contribute significantly to moving people living on social assistance toward income adequacy for their overall necessities of life. Ontarians receiving social assistance are very familiar with claw‐backs on benefit programs applying to all persons on low income. Presumably, the Commissioners would recommend against a claw‐back for a housing benefit that is supposed to apply to both social assistance recipients and low income working people. Currently, however, a portion of the Basic Needs Allowance to social assistance recipients is designated for shelter costs. Unless, social assistance rates are also increased in the direction of adequacy for basic living needs, there is the risk that rates are also increased in the direction of adequacy for basic living needs, there is the risk that administration of a partial housing benefit will be offset with a loss or reduction in the shelter allowance portion of the OW and ODSP recipient’s overall benefit, leaving them only marginally better off.

Poverty Free Ontario recognizes that a housing benefit for social assistance recipients and low wage workers may well have a place in the overall income security reforms that the Commissioners will propose by June 2012. Under conditions where overall benefit levels bring social assistance recipients out of deep poverty and where minimum wage levels assure low income workers earn above the poverty line, a housing benefit can be an important complementary protection against variable high housing costs in communities across the province.

A full housing benefit is a complement to the core income of a low income individual or family, not a substitute for the basic income required to meet daily living requirements. It should be designed as a protection for household money for food and other necessities of life.

Questions to Commissioners Lankin and Sheikh: 

  • Should you propose a new housing benefit,:
    • will it be available to all low income individuals and families with housing costs above 30% of gross household income?
    • will it provide full or partial coverage of the difference between 30% of their housing costs and the actual costs of those in need?
    • will it reduce the shelter allowance portion of OW and ODSP recipients’ benefits?

Special-Purpose Benefits

The Commissioners will also seek input on eligibility for special-purpose benefits and inquire whether some may best be delivered outside the social assistance system. The Special Diet Allowance is one such benefit identified.

The Ontario Government’s 2010 budget proposed changes to the Special Diet Allowance (SDA) that threatened an important supplementary support to individuals and families with health-related dietary needs not adequately covered through existing benefits. Since an internal review of the SDA was completed, the eligibility process has been tightened up and the number of qualifying medically necessary conditions has been reduced significantly.

The Commissioners have a chance to serve the interests of OW and ODSP recipients in two ways through their Review:

  1. Distinguish the issue adequacy in benefit levels in general that enable access to affordable and nutritious food for all recipients from support for recipients with special dietary requirements; and
  2. Reinforce the importance of a supplementary Special Diet Allowance available fairly to recipients with medically necessary dietary requirements.

Clearly, the administration of a Special Diet Allowance in a way that would open its eligibility to low income working individuals and families would be beneficial in general to personal and community health.

Questions to Commissioners Lankin and Sheikh: 

  • Will you recommend that the Ontario Government retain and expand as required a Special Diet Allowance to ensure that OW and ODSP recipients and qualifying low income workers and working families will have access to food essential to medically prescribed special dietary requirements?

Federal and Provincial Jurisdictions in Income Security

The Commissioners also express the need for better integration of the federal and provincial provisions for income security in general. They point to the growing burden on social assistance as lower numbers of Ontario’s unemployed receive Employment Insurance. These are legitimate concerns and improved coordination and integration between the federal and provincial governments on income security issues are highly desirable.

Federal-provincial jurisdictional considerations and discussions for long-term income security reform should not, however, delay provincial action in the short and intermediate terms on the two clear areas of sole provincial responsibility:

  1. Basic incomes through social assistance which ensure a life out of poverty for parents and adults with limited access to employment; and
  2. Labour markets with decent work that enable full-time, full-year earners to live above poverty.

Poverty Free Ontario urges community participants to reinforce with the Commissioners the imperative that the Province of Ontario fulfills its obligations to both social assistance recipients and low income working people, regardless of the federal government’s position on income security.

Questions to Commissioners Lankin and Sheikh: 

  • Will you recommend action by the Ontario Government on social assistance reform and labour market policy regardless of any proposals or discussions with the federal government in the longer-term with respect to more integrated income security policy?


Poverty Free Ontario urges communities to affirm the opportunity that the Social Assistance Review Commissioners have not only to propose serious and comprehensive reforms to the social assistance system in Ontario, but also to make sure that the issue of poverty and poverty eradication is part of the policy debate in the upcoming provincial election. Currently, no political party is giving the issue of poverty any prominence at all in its party platform.

The Commissioners would best serve this issue with an interim report on their deliberations with the community by August or early September prior to the provincial election date of October 6.

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