Welfare reform report released in a vacuum

By Deborah O’Connor

The Commission for the Review of Social Assistance finally released its long awaited report, “Brighter Prospects: Transforming Social Assistance In Ontario”, today following a one-month delay. Too bad nobody is home at the Ontario Legislature to act on it. It’s not likely to make much difference anyway since many activists aren’t expecting anything positive from it. While the reforms designed to cut the welfare rolls and save money will no doubt be eagerly embraced, those who would improve the system and the lives of those affected are not welcoming it, if past government behaviors are any indication.

The facts are while the Liberal government in Ontario added about 130 million to the welfare budget this year, corresponding cutbacks clawed away half of the rolls. This new report has similar features since it recommends an immediate increase of $100 a month, bringing payments to $699, and then the government kills the Special Diet Allowance. It gives with one hand and takes away with the other.

And, as expected, the report would require every single person receiving the Ontario Disability Support Program allowance to submit to job search requirements. As one recipient said to this writer, “I thought ODSP was designed so disabled people didn’t have to look for work”. Not anymore, my friend.

While there are voluntary job supports already in existence for those disabled persons who can and want to work, these aren’t reducing the caseload fast enough for politicians, which appears to be the goal of this report. If it was that easy to qualify for disability benefits their argument might be plausible, but it is not. Legal clinic staff spends an inordinate amount of their time fighting for their disabled clients who are routinely denied by the government’s Disability Adjudication Unit, which seems to have a special contempt for the mentally ill seeking those benefits.

The worst aspect of the report has to be the twin ideas of combining regular assistance for the job ready with the disability program recipients. This turns the disabled over to the municipalities to case-manage. In theory, this is because the Ontario Works staff is more experienced in helping people find work. But in reality, it is because they are more experienced in finding excuses to cut people off their benefits. This truth was well documented in 1999 when the program for single parents was dismantled and they were shuffled off to Ontario Works and their job search requirements.

As the months rolled on, single parent led families were dropping like flies off the caseload as their family responsibilities collided with their workers’ unreasonable job search duties. Parents who already had jobs were threatened with cut-offs if they didn’t find better ones to get them off the caseload. It was a time of dire anxiety for single parents all across Ontario, and will prove to be worse for the disabled, especially those with mental health conditions who simply cannot tolerate anxiety and uncertainty in their lives.

The disabled will have their rates cut too if this report is implemented. For now they are being promised a special subsidy to add to the basic $699 allowance being proposed for single people, which most of the disabled are, but no amount is revealed, and with the loss of the Special Diet Allowance they will be much worse off than they are currently, with the added stress of job search requirements on top.

It’s hard not to wonder if the Legislature being closed isn’t a blessing in disguise for the disabled, although the idea of an immediate $100 increase to the basic rate would be the best Christmas present possible for the others.

This short article doesn’t do justice to the lengthy report that was issued today, but this link to the Commission website includes backgrounders that discuss the most important recommendations.