Apr 05

New strategy offers little relief for those in poverty


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Local organizations working to fight poverty in Halton cringed last Thursday upon hearing about changes to social assistance being considered by the Province.

Jennefer Laidley of the Income Security Advocacy Centre discussed a recently-released Commission for the Review of Social Assistance report at a poverty reduction forum hosted at the Oakville Conference Centre by the Halton Poverty Roundtable.

Laidley said the report was commissioned in 2008 when concern was mounting over the escalating number of people using the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP).

The commission was given a narrow mandate — to examine Ontario Works (OW) and ODSP, find ways to move more people into work and simplify programs to encourage long-term viability, she said.

Laidley took issue with one particular recommendation involving additional requirements for people with disabilities to get jobs or engage in work-related activities as a condition to receiving their income benefits, despite the labour market barriers they face.

“You can’t change the labour market by changing the social assistance system,” said Laidley.

“You don’t have to make people’s eligibility for benefits contingent on their participation in work-related activities. You will hear from people that their experience in the current system has not been particularly helpful to them in terms of finding employment and moving out of poverty. What this does is puts people’s incomes at risk,” said Laidley.

Another recommendation would see the standard monthly rate rise from $606 to $706.

While it sounds good, Laidley said it comes with strings as the increase would be offset by the elimination of the special diet allowance, which covers costs for people with medical conditions who require special food.

Also eliminated would be the Ontario Disability Work-Related Benefit, which provides people with disabilities extra money to pursue job opportunities, would also be cancelled.

Laidley also questioned the modified standard rate that sees someone on social assistance who is living with another person receive just 86 per cent of the benefit.

“It doesn’t matter if they are just roommates or cohabiting or spouses or whatever, it’s 86 per cent,” said Laidley.

“Many people on assistance clearly can’t afford to live on their own and must share accommodation in order to make it. This recommendation really would not be very helpful to those people.”

While Laidley said there were positive recommendations, including increased employment supports, creation of a disability supplement for all low-income Ontarians with disabilities, and a 50 per cent exemption for child support payments, she noted the report’s negative aspects could not be ignored.

Halton Poverty Roundtable Co-chair Marc Hamel said providing Halton’s poor with just enough money to survive will cost the taxpayer far more in the long run.

“In 1971, Senator David Croll said, ‘We’re pouring billions of dollars into a social welfare system that merely treats the symptoms of poverty, but leaves the disease untouched.’ The system really has not changed that much,” said Hamel.

“Research shows us that an inadequate response to reducing poverty not only has a huge, personal, emotional and health cost to those living in poverty, but the result of this response is a significant social cost including increased costs to health care, increased security costs and lost tax revenue.”

Hamel said those living in poverty tend to use the health care system 50 per cent more and actually die earlier.

He said 20 per cent of children who live in poverty today will continue to do so as adults.

When the costs those in poverty have on society were added to money lost from their inability to participate in society (ie. pay taxes, contribute to the economy), Hamel estimated poverty in Ontario costs the government $32 billion per year.

While Laidley said Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne has expressed interest in implementing the report’s recommendations, it’s not clear if that would involve some or all of the proposals.