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October 25, 2014

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne a social justice premier?

Reuel S. Amdur

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In her post-election publicity, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne promised, among other things, "better support" for those on social assistance. "We will increase Ontario Works and Ontario Disability Support Program rates. . . by one per cent in 2014-15. We will also increase benefits for single Ontario Works clients without children, giving them a total benefit increase of $30 per month in 2014, for a total increase over two years of $50."

There are observations to be made about this announcement. 

To begin, Mike Harris, whose tenure as premier preceded the Liberal reign, cut Ontario Works rates by 21.6%.  The Liberal governments have refused to put the money back in the pockets of recipients.  Wynne wants to be seen as a social justice premier, but the Ontario Liberal Party behavior in the area of social assistance has been poor at best. 

In fact, the additional amounts given to Ontario Works beneficiaries to adjust for increased cost of living have lagged behind the actual increase in cost of living.  As a result, Ontario Works recipients today are financially worse off under Wynne than they were under Harris.  Some social justice premier.

Then there is the matter of the one per cent increase for those on Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP).

Increasing both by a percentage means a constantly increasing dollar gap between the two.  While this gap may have popular appeal, it is simply unjustifiable.  Needs for food, shelter, and other necessities are the same for people in both programs.  Special needs for diabetics and others are also available for recipients of both programs. 

To make the case even more unjustifiable, the social assistance system is quite simply incapable of determining who is and who is not disabled.  Anyone who has ever worked in the system can attest to that fact.  The Ontario Works rolls are honeycombed with people incapable of working.

The one bright light for welfare reform in Wynne’s first term was her appointment of Ted McMeekin as Minister of Community and Social Services. 

McMeekin is a long-time advocate of implementing a program to base rates on need rather than the usual whim of politicians.  It was he who was able to bring in the additional modest increase for single Ontario Works recipients.  However, in her new cabinet Wynne moved him to Municipal Affairs and Housing.

Helena Jaczek, the new Minister of Community and Social Services, is yet to show her stuff in this portfolio. 

Jaczek is a physician who served for many years as York Region’s Medical Officer of Health.  It is certainly appropriate to demand that in her current post she relate rates to the social determinants of health.  Poverty is right up there with smoking as a factor in illness and premature death.  Having been the MOH, she is surely aware of that.  She would have a tough job getting movement on this issue, but McMeekin at least managed to get his foot in the door. 

As for Wynne, if she can’t do any better than she has on the poverty envelope, she is little more than a Mike Harris in a skirt.  As pointed out, in constant dollars Ontario Works recipients were actually better off under Harris!

Social assistance recipients need allies and community support to pressure the Wynne government to improve benefits. 

One way in which the system gets to perpetuate its mistreatment of the poor is by a tactic of divide and conquer. 

The disabled are seen as more deserving.  Managing to obtain a “disabled” label puts a person in a more privileged position in the system, even if the person’s level of functioning is no different than that of many people on Ontario Works.  This shell game even cons people and organizations that should know better.

Take the case of ARCH, the disability law centre and a legal clinic.  What is its demand regarding social assistance rates?  Increase rates for ODSP, period. 

Nothing like buying into the hoary distinction between the worthy poor and the unworthy.  Nothing like ignoring the substantial number of disabled persons who receive Ontario Works.  And this from a legal clinic who knows full well that there are many people with disabilities who are denied ODSP.

Getting back to Jaczek, perhaps, just as a start, she could convince her boss to give Ontario Works financial benefits at least equal to what they were under Mike Harris, in constant dollars.  Don’t hold your breath. 

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