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The income security system in Ontario is much more than social assistance, but social assistance is at the core of the system. Since 1998, social assistance in Ontario has consisted of two programs: Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support Program.

Ontario Works is administered by 37 Consolidated Municipal Service Managers (CMSMs), 10 District Social Services Administration Boards (DSSABs) and 111 First Nations. In 2010 municipal governments pay 19.4 per cent of the benefit costs and 50 percent of the administrative costs, with the remaining costs paid by the province. The municipal share of benefit costs is being phased out gradually until it disappears in 2018, and the future of the share of administration costs are currently being negotiated. The province sets the rules and regulations under the Ontario Works Act 1997, leaving the Ontario Works administrators in municipalities and First Nations some flexibility, if limited, in areas such as eligibility and discretionary benefits. The province also administers all central functions, such as statistical reporting and the data management system.

On reserves, Ontario Works is administered by First Nations under the terms of the 1965 Canada-Ontario Indian Welfare Services Agreement. This Agreement provides for Ontario Works and some social services to be delivered by First Nations, but financed about 95 per cent by the federal government. For historical reasons, this agreement is unique to Ontario. Many First Nations see the 1965 Agreement as having resulted in a fuller range and better financed services for reserves in Ontario than in other provinces.

Ontario Works is for people who are in financial need but not deemed to have a long-lasting disability preventing employment.

Table 1 shows the number of cases and beneficiaries of Ontario Works as of March 2010

Table 1 : Cases and beneficiaries of Ontario Works as of March 2010
  Cases Beneficiaries
Singles 148,594 145,594
Couples 28,208 101,916
Sole support parents 74,955 206,372
All Households 251,757 456,882
Source: Ministry of Community and Social Services Monthly Statistical Report : MCSS Website


Ontario Works applicants must have exhausted all other alternative sources of income and must have cashed any Registered Retirement Savings Plans in order to qualify for assistance. Aside from a tiny amount of savings and some specific types of liquid assets, only personal assets such as clothes and a car below a specified value are allowed. Homeowners are allowed to keep their homes, although in practice only 1 to 2 per cent of recipients of Ontario Works are homeowners.

Most recipients of Ontario Works are required to make reasonable efforts to accept and maintain full-time, part-time or casual employment for which they are physically capable, as a condition of receiving income benefits. Participation agreements are mandatory and include employment preparation, training or volunteer activities. Some Ontario Works recipients, however, such as lone parents with children not yet of school age, are exempt from mandatory participation. Recipients can also be exempted because of illness or temporary disability. About 11 per cent of Ontario Works recipients are working, usually part-time, while receiving benefits.

Aside from financial benefits, there are a number of health and other services available to those on Ontario Works. For example, recipients are covered for prescription drugs and emergency dental care, as well as basic dental care for children.

Table 2 shows the number of cases and beneficiaries of the Ontario Disability Support Program.

Table 2 : Cases and beneficiaries of Ontario Disability Support program as of March 2010
  Cases Beneficiaries
Singles 207,747 207,747
Couples 37,817 107,038
Sole support parents 23,296 58,361
All Households 268,860 373,146
Source: Ministry of Community and Social Services Monthly Statistical Report : Ministry Website

The Ontario Disability Support Program is similar to Ontario Works, but differs in several important aspects. Like Ontario Works, the Ontario Disability Support Program is for those in financial need; however, it is only for those with a disability of more than one year’s duration which is deemed to substantially restrict the individual’s ability to attend to personal care, function in the community or function in a workplace. This program has seen some growth as a result of de-institutionalization, and aging of the population.

While the financial needs test for the Ontario Disability Support Program is less stringent than Ontario Works, Ontario Disability Support Program applicants must also verify a disability and the restrictions caused by the disability. Applicants must find doctors or other health care professionals to complete the required forms. A frequently heard complaint is the requirement for multiple specialists’ reports and expensive diagnostic reports. The high success rate of appeals to the Social Benefits Tribunal suggests problems with the application process and the initial adjudication of applications.

Once admitted, the Ontario Disability Support Program pays much more than Ontario Works and also allows a higher level of financial assets – $5,000 for a single adult on the Ontario Disability Support Program versus $585 on Ontario Works. The Ontario Disability Support Program recognizes the limitations that recipients may face in their ability to find a job by not requiring job searches or participation agreements. The Ontario Disability Support Program, however, does encourage recipients to seek employment and may also provide employment supports to some recipients. Non-disabled spouses and dependent adults without care-giving responsibilities receiving Ontario Disability Support Program payments are, however, required to participate in Ontario Works employment programs.

The province directly administers the Ontario Disability Support Program and finances 90 percent of its costs, with municipal governments paying the remaining 10 percent until January 2011 when the upload of Ontario Disability Support Program costs to the province will be complete. The same is true for First Nations. The Ontario Disability Support Program offers a range of employment and social supports along with many critical disability-related services and supports that would otherwise have to be paid by recipients, and which assist in off-setting some of the additional costs faced by people living with disabilities. About 11 percent of those on the Ontario Disability Support Program are also working, although mainly part-time.

There is very limited data on the ethnic or other characteristics of social assistance recipients. However, we do know that some groups are at greater risk, including lone parents (overwhelmingly women), unattached males and females aged 45 to 64, recent and non-status immigrants, racialized groups, Aboriginal peoples and persons with disabilities. There are particularly high rates of low income among racialized groups, who make up 26 percent of the population but represent 41 percent of the population in low-income households. Low income is especially concentrated among families with children in racialized groups, who make up 29 percent of all children in Ontario, but account for 51 percent of children in low-income families.