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Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support Program share a fundamental similarity: Each is a social assistance program of last resort. Both are intended to provide a final safety net for Ontarians and their dependent children who find themselves with little or no income from other sources, having exhausted all other alternatives. Both programs use the budget deficit method of calculating payments, subtracting the total income of the applicant, less allowable amounts, from an allowable budget for the applicant’s household structure.

“You feel like you never get ahead, Ontario Works is always clawing back your income.” – Ontario Works recipient, Windsor

“I would allow for clients keeping their assets: car, RRSP, and homes. Clients need cars for work, RRSP for the future. Do not punish the client, it pushes them into poverty they cannot get out of.” – Ontario Disability Support Program recipient, Ottawa

Last resort social assistance programs using the budget deficit method are by their nature intricate, rule-bound, complicated, hard to understand and difficult to administer fairly. Administrators must spend much of their time policing the system, determining benefits and imposing sanctions with little time for helping recipients to become more self-reliant.

Administering a system with many such detailed rules also means delving deeply into the personal lives of recipients. This is stigmatizing and robs recipients of their dignity and control of their own lives. One example is that since social assistance payments are made on behalf of a family, rather than on behalf of an individual, Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support Program administrator become involved in deciding the circumstances under which two adults constitute a family. While escape from poverty is often achieved through a common-law or marital partnership, the rules of social assistance may make such choices more difficult. For example, those rules impose support obligations on adults who live together for a much shorter period of time than as defined in Ontario’s Family Law Act.

While much can be done to improve the experience of Ontario Works and Ontario Disability Support Program beneficiaries by reducing the intrusion into their lives, last resort programs using a budget deficit method will never avoid their inherent paternalistic nature. A strategy to minimize the use of such programs - focusing on prevention and more acceptable alternatives - should be central to Ontario’s goals for reforming income security.