There is deep and continuing dissatisfaction with the existing approach to social assistance from all quarters: community groups, business, labour, policy makers, the people who run the system and those who receive its benefits.
Ontario’s core social assistance programs – Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support Program - together with the other programs that make up Ontario’s income security system, continue to fall short in providing an economic safety net for individuals and families as well as promoting opportunity to ensure everyone can contribute to the long-term prosperity of the province.
The current social assistance system is based on the budget deficit model. By its nature, the budget deficit model is intricate, rule-bound, complicated, hard to understand and difficult to administer fairly. The consequences are stigma, a high degree of invasiveness into the personal lives of recipients and the enforcement of rules placed above real support. The system requires applicants to deplete most financial assets, making it harder to recover from an economic setback. Once in the system, recipients live on substandard incomes, and often become trapped in a cycle of poverty.
The income security system as a whole fails to provide effective alternatives to social assistance. Lack of Employment Insurance coverage, inadequate workforce development and lack of income benefits to ease recipients’ transition to independence all make social assistance the first program many people turn to in times of financial hardship.
While a need for reform is widely acknowledged, a consensus about how to fix the system does not yet exist.
With these challenges in mind, the Ontario government’s poverty reduction strategy, entitled Breaking the Cycle, undertook to initiate: “[A] review of social assistance with the goal of removing barriers and increasing opportunity – with a particular focus on people trying to move into employment from social assistance. The review will seek to better align social assistance and other key programs and initiatives and better communicate program rules to achieve the aims of increasing opportunity for the individual.”
In December 2009, the Ontario government created the Social Assistance Review Advisory Council, made up of eleven members. The Council was asked to report on the "scope and terms of reference that would guide the development of the social assistance review."
The Social Assistance Review Advisory Council concludes that Ontario does not need a review solely of social assistance – it needs a comprehensive review of Ontario’s income security system. Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support Program represent 23 percent of all provincial and federal income security program spending that serves working-age adult Ontarians. Social assistance is but one piece of a patchwork of income security, employment and social supports.
The Social Assistance Review Advisory Council is fully cognizant of the current difficult fiscal situation facing the province. We recommend transforming the income security system not despite Ontario’s fiscal situation but because of it. The province needs a plan for the income security system it wants to build as part of its economic recovery. Ontario needs to articulate its interests and perspective to the federal government and the other provinces and territories.
Now is the time to develop a coherent, purposeful and focused strategy for reform to guide successive governments over the next decade and beyond. A transformed income security system in Ontario should:
The following pages are our recommendations for the substance and process of a review which, we believe, can create such a vision. The full report of the Social Assistance Review Advisory Council that follows sets out the recommendations and explains their background and rationale.