After 22 months of consultations, discussion and analysis, the final report on the Ontario Social Assistance Review was released yesterday. “Brighter Prospects: Transforming Social Assistance in Ontario” offers over 180 pages of information on the current welfare system and how it can change to be more effective and accountable. As part of the commitment made during the creation of the 2008 poverty strategy, the commission has turned input from individuals across Ontario into calls for action.
In January 2010, the Social Assistance Review Council was created and it recommended a comprehensive review of the entire income security system. Commissioners Frances Lankin and Munir Sheikh were subsequently chosen to manage this process, and produced two discussion papers which reflect the 700 written submission and 11 community conversations in which they engaged over 2000 people on their views of what reforms were needed to improve social assistance. Overall, they have come to the conclusion that small changes will not be enough but rather a larger transformation of the system is necessary.
A total of 108 recommendations, some highlights are:
- Immediate increase in benefits by $100 for single persons (bringing the rate to $699 total), which would become the new standard rate
- Create an independent advisory group to establish adequate rates
- Integrate Ontario Works and Ontario Disability Support Program and have the new program delivered at the municipal level
- Welfare rates based on the new standard rate with consideration for those in shared accommodation
- Income exemption of $200, plus half of all income earned after that until it exceeds the welfare amount
- Allow single parents to keep half of child support payments
Advocates for poverty are encouraging the now prorogued provincial government to respond to the report, and call for immediate action. The Income Security Advocacy Centre released a statment asking the Ontario government to meet with people on social assistance so that each recommendation can be evaluated (some concerns exist about the loss of particular benefits when rates are combined into a standard rate, such as the special dietary allowance). The next step will be to watch the governments’ response, especially considering the fact that this minority government reluctantly raised welfare rates by 1% in order to pass the June 2012 budget after opposition and public pressure proved too much.
Currently the social assistance system costs Ontario $8.3 billion, but what other reports have shown is that maintaining poverty is more expensive than addressing the issue. In Ontario poverty costs every person between $2,299 and $2,895 each year as tax money is spend on increased health care and criminal justice costs. Overall poverty can cost Canada between $72-86 billion annually.
In 2010 870,000 Ontarians were on social assistance, while 12.6% of the provincial population was in poverty according to Statistics Canada (CANSIM Table 202-0802). Welfare incomes for a single person are $7,500 annually (6,877 in social assistance and the remainder in tax credits), while the unofficial poverty line called the Low-Income Cut-Off (After-Tax) is set at $18,421. That is a gap of over $10,000.
The call to raise welfare rates has been circling outside of the Ontario legislature for years. Perhaps now with this new report Ontario politicians will bring that information to the floor and demand that all persons in the province they represent be able to live with adequate income and dignity.
*UPDATE: the Ontario government created a webpage in response to the report which has answers to #10 questions, most of which state that the welfare system is complicated and that rates and benefits will not be raised at this time. To read the answers click here.
 National Council of Welfare, “Welfare Incomes 2009” at 2-2.