Is your income secure? Do you swipe your credit card at the supermarket without really looking at how much you’re spending? Can you pay all your bills every month? Can you afford your medication? Do your kids have the clothes, shoes and school supplies they need? Is your home safe and warm?
Or do you skip meals to make sure you can pay the rent and your kids are fed? Are you a regular at the local food bank? Do you have trouble getting there because you can’t afford the bus fare? Do you have to figure out which bill to pay each month and which one to risk disconnection on? Do you cringe when your doctor hands you a prescription, knowing you can’t afford to fill it? Do you struggle with bedbugs? Mould? A landlord that never does the repairs? Are you living too far from your job and the services you need because rents are too high?
Do you feel like nothing will ever change, no matter what you do or how hard you try?
Nearly two million people in Ontario struggle daily with these questions. Their jobs don’t pay enough to cover their bills, or they don’t get enough hours, let alone benefits, to make ends meet. Welfare pays $721 a month, not nearly enough to cover rent. Benefits for people with disabilities don’t get them much closer to this increasingly out-of-reach feat, especially for those living in cities.
What’s more, people getting low social assistance benefits receive few supports to deal with domestic violence or illness, mental health or literacy challenges, or the impacts of racism or colonialism, which are all often connected to their need for income support.
Simply put, Ontarians living in poverty or with low incomes cannot afford basic necessities and services that many of us take for granted and that would make getting through the day so much less of a battle. Their struggle with poverty and income insecurity can be attributed in no small part to benefit systems and regulatory structures that are outmoded and ineffective, and long past due for change.
Many parts of Ontario’s income security system need updating. The province’s two social assistance programs, for example, were designed to be difficult to access, punitive and coercive. While steps have been taken in recent years to alleviate some of these programs’ worst aspects, the system hasn’t fundamentally changed in 20 years.
Ontario Works provides benefits of $721 per month—nowhere near what it takes for a single person to pay for rent, food or any of the other regular daily costs of living. That was by design, based on the misplaced notion that keeping people poor gives them an incentive to find a job.
In reality, low benefit rates create barriers to finding work: they make it difficult to buy clothes for job interviews, pay to print resumes, or afford telephone and internet services, which are essential for finding and applying for work today. More fundamentally, $721 a month does not pay for clean and safe housing from which one can even begin to contemplate working. Low benefit rates are good at one thing and one thing only: kicking people when they’re down.
Ontario Works also assumes that everyone is employment-ready and that the labour market is accessible to everyone. There is no recognition in the system of barriers to employment, including caregiving needs, racism, trauma, colonialism, violence and other factors that leave people economically and socially isolated, nor is there much support to effectively deal with these barriers.
The Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) is very difficult to access. People already dealing with the impacts of having a disability are required to navigate a complicated application process for which there is no support and that often requires them to get multiple reports from doctors and other specialists. Applicants who are denied benefits face an appeals process that can take up to two years to resolve.
Even though people can work while they’re on ODSP and remain eligible for benefits, the system makes it so hard to prove you have a disability that newly entering or getting back into the workforce becomes nearly impossible. And at $1,151 a month for a single person, ODSP benefit rates are only slightly better than those for people on Ontario Works.
Both programs also require constant reporting—Where do you live? How much do you pay in rent? Do you live with someone else, and what is your relationship with that person?—and a host of other requirements. The rules are enforced by caseworkers who have to closely monitor the lives of recipients. People can be cut off for the slightest infractions, often triggered by inflexible computerized administrative protocols, putting their source of income at risk.
This system of surveillance and punishment treats low-income people like they’re not responsible, not entitled to support, essentially guilty until proven innocent. It forces caseworkers to act like welfare police when they probably took the job out of a desire to help.
Both Ontario Works and ODSP deduct part or all of many other regular income sources, including employment insurance, workers’ compensation and Canada Pension Plan disability payments. These clawbacks ignore recipients’ past contributions to federal and provincial support programs, and all but ensure they will continue to live in poverty.
Furthermore, neither program adequately supports people’s individual ambitions and goals, whether that’s finding and keeping work or accomplishing other objectives like completing high school or volunteering in the community.
Imagine living under that kind of system. Now, imagine there was a plan for transforming these and other programs so that they lift people out of poverty, and make it more difficult for anyone to fall into poverty, while providing sufficient income to live with health and dignity. Wouldn’t you want your government to implement that plan?
The plan exists. It was developed by a broad group of voices in Ontario (Indigenous, advocacy, lived-experience, private-sector and administrative) and published by the provincial government on November 2 last year under the title Income Security: A Roadmap for Change. It details a 10-year strategy to transform income security in Ontario to put people—and their needs and rights—at the centre of the system.
Figure taken from the report, Income Security: A Roadmap for Change (October 2017).
Importantly, the roadmap recommends increasing the amount and improving the quality of the benefits and services available to low-income people. But even more fundamentally, it also presents a new understanding of income security in Ontario—promoting economic and social inclusion, treating people with respect and dignity, and helping them reach their full potential.
For example, instead of trying to push people receiving Ontario Works benefits into the first available job, the reformed system would take a more person-centred and trauma-informed approach. Once a person’s immediate needs have been met—like stable housing—the system could then help them achieve other goals, like getting their high school equivalency diploma or dealing with childhood abuse trauma through mental health treatment.
Instead of leaving increasing numbers of workers without health care coverage, the reformed system could offer drug, dental, vision and hearing benefits, typically only provided by employers, to all low-income people. It could also provide a housing benefit to help bridge the affordability gap.
Instead of locking people with disabilities into a program that’s not responsive to their shifting needs, or to the reality that they may need lifelong support, the system could work with them to build a new assured income model that is less restrictive, provides stable income over the long term, and supports moving in and out of the workforce as a person’s disability allows.
Instead of imposing income support programs on Indigenous peoples, the government could work with them to create a system that supports both social and economic inclusion, and provides holistic, wrap-around services that promote the physical, spiritual, mental and emotional well-being of the individual, family and community. It could also take steps to ensure the programs are ultimately controlled by First Nations, with sufficient funding to meet the particular needs, realities and issues of those communities.
Instead of being rule-bound and controlling, the system could promote a culture of trust. It could transform the role of the caseworker into a case collaborator whose function would be to help people identify and solve problems, and who would receive appropriate professional development and training on issues like Indigenous cultural safety and anti-oppression.
Maybe most importantly, instead of condemning people to a life in poverty, the system could commit to ensuring real income security. Making sure everyone has enough to pay for the costs of living and participate fully in their communities has to be the bottom line.
The roadmap’s guiding principles of adequacy, rights, reconciliation, access to services, economic and social inclusion, equity and fairness, sustainability, and respect and dignity seem uncontroversial at first glance. But actually, they’re revolutionary. The question now is whether they will see the light of day in government policy.
The provincial government received more than 800 responses to its call for feedback on the roadmap earlier this year. Reaction was overwhelmingly supportive; in many cases, people urged government to go even further. The government responded in its March 28 budget.
While the proposed three-year annual 3% rate increases are less than the roadmap recommends, the budget does include a set of three-year commitments on a number of incredibly important reforms to social assistance that would make significant progress on the transformation described above. It also commits to working with Indigenous communities to improve the design and delivery of social assistance programs.
The budget also proposes a new albeit modest drug and dental program for people without existing coverage, fully financing seniors’ medication needs under an expanded OHIP+ program, which currently covers more than 4,400 medications for youth under 25, and matching federal government funding on a housing benefit.
This being an election year, it’s far from certain these changes will be implemented unless the current Liberal government is re-elected. But their proposed package of reforms has raised the bar for what we can and should expect from all the parties vying to form government. So, what have the other parties said? As of early April, here’s the lay of the land.
The NDP has come out strong on expanding drug and dental coverage. They’ve promised to implement universal pharmacare—for people of all ages—starting with 125 essential medicines and expanding coverage over time, as well as a plan to fill the gaps on dental coverage for people without workplace coverage and seniors, and to improve dental coverage for those on social assistance. The NDP endorsed the roadmap and its findings, saying it would work with the income security reform working groups to implement its recommendations. The NDP also committed to the full three-year plan of rate increases recommended by the working groups.
So far, the Progressive Conservatives have recognized the need to act on poverty, by promising a tax break for Ontarians with incomes under $30,000 (most people earning that already pay no income tax). They would freeze the minimum wage at $14, halting the move to $15 now planned for January 2019. The PCs intend to release more detailed policy commitments as the campaign moves forward, and we will be watching to see if they take positions on expanding health care coverage, transforming social assistance, improving supports for people with disabilities, and working with Indigenous communities toward a better future.
Ontario’s political parties have an opportunity now to do the right thing, and the smart thing. The last census showed that about 14% of Ontarians live in poverty, though rates are higher for women, children, people from racialized communities, Indigenous peoples, newcomers and people with disabilities. The province’s Changing Workplaces Review found that about 30% of people employed in Ontario are in vulnerable, precarious jobs, with similarly disproportionate impacts for people in those groups just mentioned. To top it off, social assistance rates haven’t kept up with the real costs of living. Ontario Works supplies only about 51% and ODSP 79% of the income it would take to be lifted above the poverty line.
These levels of poverty cost governments in Canada an estimated $4 to $6.1 billion each year due to lower tax revenues arising from lost productivity. Even if no changes are made to Ontario’s income security system, those costs will rise for the province. Projections are that Ontario will spend $2 billion more by 2020 on the same outdated, counterproductive programs that result in poor outcomes for low-income people.
A recent report from the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy says that increasing spending on social services will improve people’s health more than increasing spending on health care. Why not invest now in improving life for low-income people in Ontario instead of continuing to spend money on a system that simply perpetuates poverty?
It’s a question Ontarians should be putting to their candidates when they come knocking for votes before June 7. We’ve got a solid roadmap for ensuring income security that has broad support. All parties need to commit to making sure that everyone in Ontario can answer yes to the question: is your income secure?
Jennefer Laidley is research and policy analyst with the Income Security Advocacy Centre.