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Social Assistance Review

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Commissioners Consult with Poverty Free Ontario Cross-Community Leaders

On Friday morning, July 29 twenty-five leaders from seventeen communities across Ontario participated in a tele-conference call with Social Assistance Review Commissioners Frances Lankin and Munir Sheikh.

Peter Clutterbuck, Coordinator and Janet Gasparini, Chairperson of the Social Planning Network of Ontario (SPNO), opened the ‘tele-meeting’ and set the context with a review of the work that Poverty Free Ontario is doing across the province.

Marvyn Novick, Policy Contributor to SPNO, summarized several key messages that a larger group of PFO leaders had developed in a planning meeting for this call on July 27. These were:

  • Poverty in Ontario is a social and moral crisis with record numbers of people in deep poverty (below 80% of the poverty line) living in chronic cycles of hardship and hunger and contending with unfair and stigmatizing stereotypes.
  • Importance of the Commissioners supporting the mission of ending poverty via a two-track approach by recommending immediate action on benefit adequacy and proposing a comprehensive plan in their final report commitment to end deep poverty in the province by 2015.
  • Asking the Commissioners to report what they heard in their community consultations regardless of the interpretation of their mandate or terms of reference by their political masters (e.g. link between social assistance and labour market conditions – the poverty trap).
  • Request the Commissioners’ leadership in helping communities across the province make poverty eradication an election issue by releasing an interim report on what they were hearing from communities in early September.

Several PFO leaders followed to offer views from a variety of perspectives across the province:

  • Rev. Maggie Helwig of the Anglican Diocese of Toronto and also representing the Interfaith Social Assistance Reform Coalition (ISARC), SPNO’s partner in Poverty Free Ontario, pointed out that local faith groups see the “intolerable reality” of poverty everyday through their ministries and asserted that it is morally wrong to continue pitting working poor people and people on welfare against each other as “deserving” and “undeserving”.
  • Tami Boudreau, Poverty Reduction Network of the District of Parry Sound, spoke eloquently of her experience as a single mom forced onto the system through a marriage breakdown and encountering multiple barriers to her persistent efforts to improve her education and get work.
  • Lorena Shepley, Pathway to Potential in Windsor, offered several examples of barriers presented by ODSP to her attempts to get the kind of work that she could manage as a person with a disability.
  • Gracia Janes, Social Assistance Reform Network of Niagara, summarized the strong local level support for the $100 a month Healthy Food Supplement as evident by municipal council resolutions passed in more than ten local and regional municipalities and by multiple community and provincial resolutions such as the Provincial Council of Women of Ontario.
  • Linda Terry, Social Planning Council of Cambridge and North Dumfries and Roundtable for a Poverty Free Cambridge, provided a short summary of a community forum on social assistance held on July 19, in which one of the recommendations was that the Commissioners release an interim report to help communities across the province make poverty eradication an election issue.

Commissioners Lankin and Sheikh expressed appreciation for this input. They did express their understanding of the link between social assistance reform and labour market conditions and acknowledged that the two worlds could not be viewed in isolation of each other. They will comment on this reality, although recommendations on the labour market are not within the Commission’s mandate.

The Commissioners expressed interest in community views on extending coverage for certain health benefits now available only to social assistance recipients to low wage working people also.

There was a discussion on the fiscal climate for making reform in which the prevalent mood is for spending restraint and tax cutting. Commissioner Lankin found helpful Marvyn Novick’s suggestion that the issue could be re-framed as a “collective challenge” — ” How do we show prudent stewardship of our fiscal resources to help people earn their way out of poverty?” Poverty Free Ontario Bulletin #4 has outlined several fiscal options for serious social assistance reform.

Several participants in the tele-call pressed for the Commissioners to issue an interim report by September. Tom Pearson of the Poverty Action for Change Coalition in York Region especially appealed for a “sense of urgency” about moving on poverty in some concrete ways as another cold winter approaches.

The Commissioners asserted their independence from any political ties in their task and held fast to their current reporting schedule of presenting an Options Paper in November for further community comment and feedback and a final report in June 2012. They left open the possibility of making some recommendations that make sense in time for the Spring 2012 Ontario Budget.

Peter Clutterbuck thanked the Commissioners and all cross-community participants and indicated that Poverty Free Ontario will continue to press for the policy proposals necessary to end poverty in Ontario.

Cambridge Forum on Social Assistance Reform Urges Interim Commissioners’ Report

On Tuesday July 19th, the Cambridge Roundtable for Poverty Eradication and the Social Planning Council of Cambridge and North Dumfries convened a community dialogue on the Review of Social Assistance in Ontario, hosted at the Cambridge Self Help Food Bank. This event included a broad community representation from the local social services sector, legal services, labour, employment services, the faith community, immigrant services, and people with lived experience on social assistance.

During this event we heard personal experiences, observations, and comments on issues and challenges with the social assistance system in Ontario and possible solutions for reforming the system to meet today’s realities. The messages were clear:

  • Social assistance rates are too low to support a dignified existence.
  • People are unable to meet their families’ basic needs.
  • The labour market does not always provide a viable path out of poverty.
  • The complex rules and changes in eligibility requirements are increasingly stringent and difficult to navigate.

We also heard many ways that the system can be reformed to allow people to move from social assistance to work and adequately support those unable to work.

Though attendees were grateful for the opportunity to have their voices heard, there was consensus that interim report of the Ontario-wide consultations was needed in advance of the October 6rd provincial election.

Over 100 Participate in Social Planning Toronto Forum on Social Assistance Review

On Thursday, July 14 Social Planning Toronto hosted a session for the Social Assistance Review Commission.

Over a hundred people, largely SPT members from all over the city, the community support sector and the community at large came to provide their input for the commission.

The input was comprehensive and wide ranging and provided an abundance of information for the commission to consider. The responses were visibly well-received by the two commissioners, Frances Lankin and Munir Sheikh.

Those present dealt with the five topics selected by the commission’s initial report. The initial report had identified the primary social assistance concerns as issues of: the necessary supports and expectations associated with access to employment; the ease of navigating the system; the appropriateness of benefits provided; the long-term viability of the system; and the integration of the Ontario system with other orders of government.

Each issue saw multiple conversations with diverse opinions clearly a reflection of the wealth of experience in the room.

Some highlights of the discussion include a focus on centralizing the dignity of social assistance recipients in efforts to reform the system. Concern was also raised with the over-emphasis on return to employment, especially given the continuing effects of the recession.

(Reproduced from SPT Soundbites, July 22, 2011)

Presentation to the Commission for the Review of Social Assistance in Ontario (Kingston)

The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life – Jane Addams

Jamie Swift, Director
Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation Office
Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul
Kingston, Ontario
12 July 2011


The Commission for the Review of Social Assistance in Ontario is another welcome – and tentative – step. The destination is the eradication of poverty in one of the richest places in the world.

The Commission’s discussion paper “Issues and Ideas” is all about policy. Which is important because the Commission’s very existence is a recognition that current policies have failed. How else to explain levels of structural poverty (Low Income Measure-After Tax, LIM-AT) of 13.1 per cent, the highest in some thirty years?

But we are wrestling with politics as well as policy. Ontario has clearly failed to deal in any adequate way with poverty because of a lack of political will. It has not been due to lack of knowledge about the problem. We have not summoned the moral and ethical strength to address the savage inequalities that are a stain on the fabric of our province. Over twenty years ago, after extensive consultation and study, the Transitions policy report was published by the Ontario’s last official Social Assistance Review. The organizers of the 2011 version, this Commission, acknowledge that even though Transitions was a “landmark” study, “some of the interim steps it recommended were implemented.” Implicit is the unfortunate fact that little was done with the policy ideas set out in 1988. Things were stalled by the recession that started in 1990 and a lack of political will. Although social assistance rates were raised before 1995, after that time Ontario witnessed an attack on the poor rather than an attack on poverty. Politics intervened.

In 2004, after a change of government, hopes were high that the journey to a socially just Ontario would resume. That did happen, though the steps were small and tentative. The government started to raise the minimum wage, a crucial step forward in any effort to address working poverty. But there was no really sustained effort at poverty reduction – let alone poverty eradication — even though Ontario was at the top of the business cycle. The government made other political choices, concentrating its public provision efforts on health and education spending.

Once again, politics intervened. Social justice advocates recognize that ours is an uphill journey. This is because poverty is seldom a top-of-mind issue for voters. There is a dominant focus on issues such as wait times for medical procedures, class sizes in education or the general economic outlook — issues that concern broad swaths of the voting public. Political technicians, seeing that poverty is not a ballot issue and recognizing that the poor are cynical or resigned and are much less likely to vote, act accordingly. Campaign platforms tend to ignore or de-emphasize poverty. Social assistance reform disappears from sight. Nevertheless, the political advocacy efforts of low income people and social justice advocates have re-established political momentum for poverty eradication in Ontario in the past five years. (The Sisters of Providence have contributed to this provincial effort by supporting the Interfaith Social Assistance Reform Coalition as well as supporting the local social justice movement here in Kingston.)

As this Commission undertakes its consultations and research, Ontario is entering an election campaign. Advocacy organizations, understanding the importance of politics, will be attempting to make poverty eradication an issue during the election campaign. We know, perhaps better than anyone, that this will be a hard slog. For this reason – and because promoting a serious public debate on poverty will enhance the chances of the Commission’s recommendations being acted upon – we urge the Commission to publish an interim state-of-the province report based on your consultations so far. Doing this before the Commission’s scheduled late autumn release of its Option Paper is a politically realistic approach to dealing with pressing policy issues. It is equally important to recognize that we do not live in a political vacuum and that changes will occur only if there is the political will to implement them.

Working Poverty (see appendix, passim)

A canard is not simply the French word for a duck.

A canard is false report, a hoax. One canard that unfortunately persists in discussions of poverty, social assistance and the labour market is that our most vulnerable neighbors are insufficiently motivated to seek employment. The implicit assumption is that life on social assistance is better than work. While it is true that social assistance recipients may be eligible for some benefits not available to low wage workers in the contingent labour force, does this mean that there is a “welfare wall” that tempts people to avoid the world of work? Is it not more appropriate to question the structural changes in the labour market that mean the lower end of this world is populated by workers whose jobs offer them poverty wages and no benefits? Is it not more appropriate to refashion Ontario’s social assistance system, modernizing to confront these structural changes?

The Commission’s Issues and Ideas background paper indicates that “the nature of work in Ontario is changing.” More precisely, however, work in Ontario has been changing for a generation. The rise of a contingent or just-in-time labour market in the expanding service sector has been recognized since the 1980s. This is a fundamental reason for the rise of poverty and social inequality in the province. Even if a single person has a full-time, year-round job at minimum wage, their income will still be more than a thousand dollars below the poverty line. One in three Ontario children living in poverty were part of families with full-time, year-round work. (LICO-BT) However, many people trapped in the contingent labour force do not have these kinds of jobs, forced as they are into taking fewer hours whenever they can. We must understand that many employers have a stake in this labour market model for the simple reason that they benefit from the low-wage, just-in-time workforce.

Issues and Ideas asks how the needs of employers can be addressed. It asserts that “understanding employers’needs is critical” in matching employment services to those needs. It is important to locate the interests of different economic sectors here. The largest financial institutions have produced important research on social assistance inadequacy. Toronto’s Board of Trade has promoted social inclusion, better public housing and transportation policy, more green jobs. But the mainstream of the business community has not been conspicuous by its presence in advocacy efforts aimed at improving employment opportunities for people receiving social assistance. This does not mean that efforts to reform the social assistance system should ignore the needs of employers. But it does mean that we must recognize that different economic sectors have different interests. Firms offering contract security and custodial services are likely to offer poverty level wage while major firms in resource, finance and manufacturing offer jobs with decent wage and benefit packages.

For this reason, it is up to government to do two things. 1) Play a facilitating role by engaging employers as partners, assisting them by matching employment services to employer needs. 2) Government also needs to play a stronger regulatory role by developing and enforcing labour standards that protect workers from employers seeking to take advantage of their vulnerability in the face of ample labour supply and the structural changes mentioned above. Newcomers to Canada, uncertain about their rights and fearful with respectto their immigration status, are particularly vulnerable. (see Swift, J. et al, Persistent Poverty: Voices from the Margins, Toronto: BTL, 2010, esp. Chapter 15 “It’s not my Country Yet…”) According to the Workers Action Centre’s 2011 report Taking Action Against Wage Theft,

“Not only is the Employment Standards Act (ESA) a central feature of labour market regulation, it is also an important social policy tool in fighting poverty. The Ontario
government has stated that poverty reduction is a key goal of the Employment Standards program — poverty reduction will be aided by improving ‘the protection of vulnerable
workers and to ensure fair workplaces by getting tough on employers who contravene employment standards legislation and regulations.’ (Ontario Ministry of Labour) Workers expect the Ontario government to live up to this commitment and to make the changes necessary to make a real difference in their lives.”

The Commission needs to take the real world of the labour market — fraught as it is by very real imbalances in power — into account in formulating its recommendations with respect to working poverty. The Commission can remind government in the strongest possible terms that it has an ethical responsibility to ensure that full time work enables earners to receive incomes above, not below the poverty line. This would add momentum to the living wage campaigns currently underway in several Ontario communities, including Kingston. The Commission also needs to promote an activist approach to social assistance grounded in the principle that it is ethically irresponsible for the government to claw back incomes of social assistance recipients who have managed to secure modest labour market incomes, at least until such time as their total income exceeds the poverty line. A job needs to be a real ticket out of poverty.

Deep Poverty

If a job is currently no guarantee of a ticket out of poverty, social assistance as presently structured guarantees a continuing cycle of hunger and hardship. The Commission’s Issues and Ideas paper acknowledges that people on social assistance cannot afford healthy diets. (This means that the poor get sicker, quicker, with substantial costs to the state — see Persistent Poverty, above, ch. 10 and 12 and a substantial body of scholarly research.) The paper also notes the “difficult trade-off” between allowing people on social assistance to eat well (“providing adequate levels of support”) but doing so “without creating barriers to work.” This balancing act is an example of pragmatism in action. It reflects an assumption, common among many economists, that people are rational actors who will choose dependence on state support over labour market participation because of the ostensible benefits offered by the former choice. As outlined above, this is a canard.

The situation of a single adult in Ontario is a case in point. The program known as “Ontario Works” provides this person with $7,325 annually, just less than 40 per cent of the poverty line (LIM-AT) income of $18,582 annually. This translates into a basic income gap ($11,230) that dwarfs this person’s income. A single parent with one child receives $16,683 on Ontario Works just short of two-thirds of the poverty line. The pragmatism that would have us believe that people choose social assistance over employment assumes that life below the poverty line is somehow bearable. It is not based on evidence, nor an appreciation of the real life experiences of low-income people in Ontario. Those experiences show that a complex set of issues – including unaffordable housing, inadequate child care, low wage work, illness and disability – characterize life on what recipients call “benefits.” The dizzyingly complex maze of rules governing social assistance, of which the Commission will hear, springs from the assumption that poor people will cheat the system and, like chronically misbehaving children, are in need of control. The system’s punitive character is underlined by the fact that Ontario Works requires applicants to divest themselves of virtually all their assets in order to qualify for benefits.

If the Commission were to address but one issue, it would be to put to rest the notion that low-income people depend on the state because they prefer social assistance to working. That said, it is important to recognize that rich countries with vibrant, competitive economies (Scandinavia and the Netherlands) have been able to design systems of public provision for their most vulnerable citizens that, by and large, keep them from falling into poverty. Countries like the U.S. and the U.K., with social assistance regimes more akin to the Ontario model, can hardly be held up as examples of economic success. Indeed, they are characterized by structurally high levels of inequality and poverty. While questions of broad economic and social policy are beyond the scope of the Commission, the northern European countries show clearly that there are alternatives.

The first step in improving Ontario’s social assistance system is the immediate introduction of the $100 per month Healthy Food Supplement as promoted by the Put Food in the Budget Campaign. As we have indicated, progress in poverty eradication is achieved when citizens act collectively in promoting the common good. It is due to the efforts of a province-wide political advocacy effort that the Commission has come into being. The immediate implementation of the Healthy Food Supplement would not only be an important, if modest, step in alleviating suffering and promoting healthier diets. It would also validate and encourage Ontario’s movement for social justice – the principal force for poverty eradication in the province.

The Commission has an opportunity to accelerate the process of change, to implicitly support a movement towards a fair and transparent way of setting social assistance rates so that people can meet their basic needs and lead healthy and dignified lives. Streamlining the now notorious 800 rules governing social assistance is long overdue. We would also urge the Commission to consider the crucial role played by housing costs in perpetuating poverty in Ontario. Kingston presents a classic case study in the housing affordability crisis. Census data from 2006 show that nearly half (48 per cent) of Kingston households spend over 30 per cent of their income on shelter. Equally shocking is that over one in five households (21.79 per cent) spend half or more of their income on shelter. We urge the Commission to recommend implementation of a full housing benefit to limit rental costs for single adults and families living on low incomes to 30 per cent of gross household incomes. Finally, we urge the Commission to develop a meaningful plan for the elimination of deep poverty aimed at ensuring that no one on social assistance is forced to try to live on an income of less than 80 per cent of the poverty line (LIM-AT).

We believe that these suggestions are feasible and realistic in a rich society such as our own. The Commissioners, experienced in government and public life, will be aware that government is about making choices. Ontario can choose to eliminate hunger, homelessness and hardship. Other affluent societies have achieved the virtual eradication of poverty. We can too.


The above has been informed by, among other research, the Final Report to the WHO Commission on the Social Determinants of Health (CSDH), Employment Conditions and Health Inequalities (2007). The Employment Conditions Knowledge Network that produced the Report is co-chaired by faculty from the Social Equity and Health Section, Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), University of Toronto. The following is from the summary of that report.

“Fair employment implies a just relation between employers and employees that requires that certain features be present: (1) freedom from coercion, which excludes all forms of forced-labour such as bonded labour, slave labour, or child labour, as well as work arrangements that are so unbalanced that workers are unable or afraid to assert their rights; (2) job security in terms of contracts and safe employment conditions; (3) fair income, that is, sufficient to guarantee an adequate livelihood relative to the needs of society; (4) job protection and the availability of social benefits including provisions that allow harmony between working life and family life, and retirement income; (5) respect and dignity at work, so that workers are not discriminated against because of their gender, ethnicity, race, or social class; (6) workplace participation, a dimension that allows workers to have their own representatives and negotiate their employment and working conditions collectively within a regulated framework; and (7) enrichment and lack of alienation, where work is not only a means of sustenance; rather, jobs should be as much
as possible an integral part of human existence that does not stifle the productive and creative capacities of human beings….

Key influences affecting changes to employment relations and conditions over the past thirty years have been the growing influence of powerful corporations and abandonment of Keynesian economic policy and social compacts in favour of neo-liberal ideology and policies, placing microeconomic rationality as the validating criterion for all aspects of social life and thereby universalises market dependence in society. In developed countries, the outcomes of these changes have been a reduced welfare net for the unemployed and disadvantaged; job losses; growth in job insecurity and precarious employment; a weakening (in practice) of regulatory protections and the historical emergence of an informal economy, including home-based work and child labour. The impact has been complicated by increased female workforce participation and an ageing population in these countries…

Given that politics are fundamental for health, as a cause of health inequalities but also as the only remedy to end with these inequalities, we have devoted considerable effort to provide not only a political analysis of employment relations and conditions, but also to provide some recommendations of what can be done to reduce inequalities in health related to employment. Our recommendations place considerable emphasis on social welfare (poverty alleviation, universal education and public health facilities, government inspectorates) and regulation of labour markets (international standards/agreements, laws and enforcement). Governments and their agencies are in a position to provide comprehensive standards and laws, and to enforce them. Welfare policies also set a framework for community expectations that influence other actions. Voluntary measures by employers/corporations have a role to play but are too fragmented and weak to reshape employment conditions and lift standards generally. Historically, it has been government action, often in response to community pressure, that has set social standards. The combination of union and community pressure plays a vital role in ensuring government action.” (emphasis added)


11 July, 2011

Building Justice

Brief to the Social Assistance Review Commission


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deep poverty

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

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

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

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

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

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

The myth of the “welfare wall”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The benefit approach problem

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

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

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


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

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

The Reverend Maggie Helwig

Chair, Social Justice and Advocacy Committee

Anglican Diocese of Toronto

Social Assistance Review: Halton Too Has Poverty

On July 4, 2011 Community Development Halton and Poverty Free Halton, at the invitation of the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction, met with Frances Lankin and Munir Sheikh, Commissioners of the Review of Social Assistance in Ontario. Halton and its municipalities rarely receive visits from commissions appointed to investigate social issues. As John Versluis, co-chair of Poverty Free Halton commented: “Poverty in Halton is often hidden, buried under the veneer of affluence and well-being.”  He continued emphasizing that “the gap between the annual income of a family of four on social assistance and that of the median Halton family income is $5,793 per month or approximately $69,230 per year.  These people live in different worlds, making bridges of compassion and understanding difficult to build.”

Rishia Burke and Jen Gerrard of Community Development Halton told the Commissioners that they, and others from their research team, had crossed the Region talking with people living in poverty. The many stories of people painfully showed that the basic necessities of life such as food, shelter, recreation and the opportunity  to belong to their community were outside of the reach of those in poverty and especially those on social assistance who live in ‘deep poverty’. Rishia Burke added: “Mental health was always an underlying theme during community conversations. Poor people live under tremendous stress. They do not have enough money to live and face choices between housing or food.  Every day they face the stresses of surviving.” Jen Gerrard told the Commissioners; “Programs and services should respect the dignity of people. They should not feel ‘less’ as a result of asking for assistance to meet basic needs.”

As the conversation moved on to social assistance reform, Joey Edwardh of Community Development Halton pointed out that the dialogue and, ultimately, the recommendations for change, must be evidence-based. She observed: “Today, there is no evidence-based process for determining social assistance rates and as a result the benefits have no relation to the cost of living in a community”.  She also pointed out that reform of social assistance needs to be based on a new paradigm that not only meets human needs but also respects the dignity of people. She emphasized: “This framework would move beyond that of the ‘welfare wall’ which implies that the benefits of those on social assistance must be kept to a certain level, inadequate, insufficient and punitive, to avoid a disincentive to enter the labour force.” The Commissioners thanked the delegation for their thoughtful and insightful presentation and in the public meeting that followed recognized the recommendation for a paradigm shift.

In the public meeting that followed, a number of people raised the issue of fair taxation as the means of sustaining supportive social supports and adequate benefits. For more information on the Hamilton consultation, read Social Assistance Review: Hamilton Consultation’s Prescription for Reform (July 4, 2011).

Social Assistance Review: Hamilton Consultation’s Prescription for Reform (July 4, 2011)

Liveable Benefits, Living Wage Jobs, Transparent Rules and Government Support

About 150 people participated in the community consultation session with Commissioners Frances Lankin and Munir Sheikh in Hamilton on Monday, July 4.

Participant contributions fell into several major theme areas.

 Adequate Benefits and Wages above Poverty Line

The need for a system such as an independent expert panel to determine social assistance rates based on evidence of the real cost of living in the community was repeated often through the session. Recipients also need access to emergency funds for things such as transportation, medication, and coverage of dental, optometry and other important health-related services.  Access to affordable housing in all areas of the city is also key to escaping poverty.

There should be an end to precarious employment and assurance of a living wage that enables workers to live above the poverty line. Those moving off of social assistance into the labour market should not be subject to income claw-backs and should be allowed a sustained income at the living wage level for a period of time before other social assistance benefits are suspended to ensure a stable and lasting transition.

 Employment Supports

There is a need for real job training, not sporadic short-term courses. Employment services should be matched with employers that provide real work experience. Job training must be related to actual existing jobs in the labour market.  The labour market, however, must ensure decent jobs which pay a living wage. Better use of technology to help more people with disabilities be successful in employment.

 Clear and Transparent Rules   

Both OW/ODSP caseworkers and recipients are frustrated by complex, punitive and nit-picking rules, which need to be simplified and made more transparent, flexible and responsive to individual needs and situations. Better staff training is needed to improve communication between workers and recipients and a role for experienced recipients should be considered to help new recipients navigate the system.  Eligibility barriers for new applicants should be reduced, such as low asset thresholds, which just make it harder to get out of poverty even if one gets off of assistance.

Future of Social Assistance

Many participants asked that a universal program be established such as the guaranteed annual income and that current income supports be better integrated. Income supports systems should meet community living needs for food, housing and health. The federal, provincial and municipal governments need to work together on this and also ensure universal healthcare coverage (dental, vision). Corporations should be contributing more through fair taxation.

It is important to overcome discrimination and stigmatization of social assistance recipients, which means presenting a unified position to the public on the need for and rightness of a social assistance system that is effective in meeting the needs of people not able to be in the labour market for whatever reason in the short- or long-term.

Government’s Role

Government must understand that minor tweaks will not work. There is a need for a focused uncomfortable discussion about what needs to be changed. Government has a role to play in communicating this in a way to the public that helps build and maintain support.

Poverty Free Ontario thanks Susan Muma of the 25 in 5 Hamilton Network for Poverty Reduction for providing notes for this report.

Social Assistance Review: Commissioners Asked to Take “Bold Action” in Niagara (July 5, 2011)

Commissioners Frances Lankin and Munir Sheikh were in Niagara Region on Tuesday, July 5 and met with representatives of community agencies, social assistance advocacy groups, a Regional Niagara Councilor and Regional Community Services Staff in the morning. They then had lunch with a small group of social assistance recipients for their input into the issue. In the afternoon they met with Regional OW caseworkers.

In the morning, the Commissioners were urged to take “bold action” in their reform proposals and to release an interim report before the provincial election to help bring poverty into a stronger public and political consciousness. The Commissioners resisted the notion indicating that they would “engage politicians but not make pronouncements.” The Commissioners expressed an interest in finding some kind of “broad consensus” around which they could “coalesce” to pass on to the government.

Community participants told of the economic hardships that people are experiencing in Niagara leaving many who had always worked now in desperate living conditions. They reported on the “cycle” of moving back and forth between the labour market and social assistance because of the low paying and precarious nature of the jobs that are available. Regional social services staff reported the heavy pressures under which they work with caseloads higher than the provincial average.

The need for more adequate benefit levels for people on social assistance was clearly stated, although the Commissioners expressed some concern about fairness to working poor people if social assistance recipients were seen to get benefits not available to them.  All of which only once again points to the importance of linking a more adequate and improved social assistance system to labour market policies and programs that ensure decent-paying jobs and good employment standards.

Although the Commissioners’ meeting with social assistance recipients was private, it was reported to be a very intense and emotional conversation, which the Commissioners indicated was very valuable to their purpose.

Thanks to Gracia Janes, Chair  of the Social Assistance Reform Network of Niagara for providing preliminary and very brief  notes for this report.  More detailed notes of the morning meeting were taken by Regional Niagara staff and will be available shortly.

Social Assistance Review: Report from the Field on London Consultation (June 29, 2011)

The Social Assistance Review Commissioners spent Tuesday, June 29 in London, Ontario.

A breakfast meeting with the commissioners and key sectoral leaders from the community was followed by two half-day facilitated “conversation cafes” with a tour of three agencies over the lunch – My Sisters Place, London Inter-Community Health Centre, and the Men’s Mission.

The conversation cafes were structured around the five issues plus a sixth table to surface “other issues.”

Invitations were sent out broadly in the community with specific asks to advocates to see if individuals with lived experience in OW/ODSP worlds would attend and participate.

Sixty people attended the morning session including about 5 individuals with lived experience.

In the afternoon, 115 people attended with perhaps a dozen or so people with lived experience.

The emerging local Inter-Faith Social Action Coalition had representatives at both sessions.

A number of OW caseworkers and front-line supervisors also participated.

A number of advocates took the Commissioners’ workbook and are going to work with their clients to complete and submit to the Commission.

A summary of the comments is being prepared and will be distributed to all participants and to the Commissioners and will also be made available to Poverty Free Ontario for posting on this web site.

Thanks to Ross Fair, Chairperson of the Child & Youth Network Ending Poverty Committee of London, for this initial report on the London consultation.

Social Assistance Review: Report from the Field on Windsor-Essex Consultation (June 28, 2011)

Social Assistance Review Commissioners Frances Lankin and Munir Sheikh held sessions with community agency stakeholders and people living on social assistance in Windsor-Essex on Tuesday, June 28, 2011.

A wide-ranging discussion in the multi-stakeholders sessions attempted to cover the major areas of interest covered in the Review’s Discussion Paper.

A less structured conversation was held with people with the lived experience of poverty, which touched on major concerns about what the system currently provides and how it is administered.

Discussion in the Multi-Stakeholders Sessions covered the following areas:

Issue 1-Reasonable Expectations and Necessary Supports to Employment

  • Easier access to services
    • Plans should be focused on the individual and be focused on their skill-sets
      • Individual focus would allow for increased support to the most vulnerable
      • Will ensure that an individual’s needs are related to the services they receive
  • Guidelines and expectations need to be more clear and concise
  • People need to be made more aware of what is available
  • The whole act needs to be re-written
  • The staff needs to be more engaged
  • There needs to be increased communication between employers regarding positive experiences they have had with workers
  • Add an English as a Second Language component
  • Transportation is a barrier to people finding and maintaining employment

Issue 2-Appropriate Benefit Structure

  • There needs to be more flexibility in rates
  • OW and ODSP rates should be equalized
  • Affordable benefits would be beneficial for the working poor
  • ODSP should be continued, without the need for renewal, if you have been declared medically unable to work (similar to WSIB)
  • More clarity is needed around the criteria that need to be met in order to be declared disabled.

Issue 3-Easier to Understand

  • It is difficult to understand the rules; teams should be created that are specialized in particular rules
  • More communication is needed around what people are eligible for
    • The system is difficult to navigate and people are unaware of where they need to go for the proper information
    • Individualized assessments would ensure that clients are receiving the proper supports
    • People need to be more aware of what benefits exist

Issue 4 Viable over the Long Term

  • Adequate income is needed and the system needs to allow people to reach their full potential
  • Ethno cultural data should be collected provided the purpose for its collection is made clear
  • Data should be clearly linked to poverty reduction
    • Does the data reflect the information needed to provide services?
    • Data on client barriers should be collected
    • If people had more adequate case management, the system was improved and OW rates were increased, it is possible that ODSP caseloads would decrease
    • Needs to be more client based
      • Services received should reflect client needs
      • The data that is collected should help the worker to tailor the services received to the client
      • Communication is needed around who clients are supposed to approach for help
      • Employers need to be more involved and educated
      • Process should be simplified for employers

Issue 5-An Integrated Ontario Position on Income Security

  • Dissemination of information needs to be improved
    • Information packages would help to distribute information more effectively
    • Information should also be updated regularly
    • There should be an integration of income supports that is monitored through the tax filing system in order to ensure that people are getting the supports they are eligible for
    • There should be greater interaction between all levels of government in order to create thriving communities through funding
    • Mobile supports are needed so case managers are able to see their clients as many cannot make it to appointments because of transportation barriers
    • Explanations of how support is calculated should be more clear
      • Individual case workers would be able to help with this

Additional Comments

  • The homeless population and the youth population need to be included in the consultation
  • Youth are included in the adult system but they need more specified supports

Discussion in the Session for People with Lived Experience of Poverty covered the following areas:

  • Social assistance rates are inadequate (remain well below the LICO)
  • More consistency is needed regarding services
  • More accountability is needed to ensure people are receiving services
  • There should be mediation between the people who make the decisions and the people receiving services
  • Rules need to be simplified and benefits need to be standardized
  • Supports should allow individuals to have a sense of dignity
  • The relationship needs to be changed between worker and client
  • Increased training is needed for workers
  • Doctors should be provided with a list of drugs that are covered
  • The category approach should be eliminated
  • Approach to services should be more personalized
  • More flexibility is needed in the rules
  • More promotion of benefits should be done
  • Things such as clothing purchases should be supplemented so that people in low-income would have increased choice in where they shop, this would raise self-esteem
  • Micro loans would help to get people working
  • The system needs to be streamlined
  • The referral process needs to be strengthened
  • Ensure that people get the support they need whether it is group support or one-on-one
  • Provide incentives to go back to school
  • Employers should be given incentives to provide training for their employees
  • People with practical experience should deliver services
  • Wage subsidy programs should be given to reputable companies
  • Benefits should be discretionary

Thanks to Adam Vasey of Pathways to Potential (Windsor Essex County Poverty Reduction Strategy) for this report on the Windsor-Essex consultation.

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