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January 5, 2011

To the Lankin-Sheikh Social Assistance Review

Reuel S. Amdur

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I am a member of the Ontario Association of Social Workers (OASW) and the Ontario College of Social Workers and Social Service Workers. For a number of years I worked in the field of social assistance, leaving a position as a supervisor with the Ottawa Ontario Works agency in 1999. Since then I have assisted people appealing denial of ODSP. I was the principal author of the OASW briefs to the Social Assistance Review Committee (SARC), which issued its report in 1988.

My reaction to the new review of social assistance is one of serious skepticism, born in part from recognition of what has come out of the SARC report. 

The other cause for skepticism is in the terms of reference described on the government web site, which falsely claims that the review is to be “comprehensive”. 

The real giveaway is the last of the four bullets: “financially sustainable.” 

The current government has still not reversed Mike Harris’ cut of 21.6% to Ontario Works rates.  Effectiveness is not only measured in terms of “getting people into jobs” and “providing security for those who cannot work.”  It also needs to be measured in terms of how well the program meets the needs of recipients. 

Currently, five provinces and the territories all have higher rates than for a single person on Ontario Works.  The gap in Ontario between the person who in Ontario is on Ontario Works and the person receiving the disability amount is the greatest in Canada.

Ontario governments of all stripes have consistently refused to examine rates in terms of what it costs to function in society.  They have refused to rely on home economists and nutritionists to help in setting rates.  There is no indication whatever that this government is even vaguely interested in doing so.

There is every reason to believe that it is more concerned that someone will choose to remain on Ontario Works rather than work because Ontario Works is too comfortable. 

The Ontario government chooses to discriminate against those it thinks are able to work (temporary recipients, it pretends) and in favor of those with substantial disabilities.  This is the hoary distinction between the worthy poor and the unworthy.  Hence the gap between OW and ODSP benefits. 

While the distinction is mean-spirited and unjust, in fact the Government is simply incapable of determining disability in any real sense. 

When I was a supervisor in Ontario Works, I saw case files of clients known to the Ottawa department going back 25 years on this program of “temporary” assistance. 

Frequently people who are denied ODSP reapply and are granted.  In the case of Canada Pension disability, the agency goes back not to the date of application but to the date of disability.  Of course, were Ontario to do the same it would come up against that fourth bullet: “financial sustainable.”  Let’s do it on the cheap and fairness be damned. 

The second bullet in the web site announcement calls for a system “easier to understand.” 

Going back to the SARC report, one of the key concerns was the complexity of the system.  Since then, complexity has increased exponentially.  Take note of that in case of a tendency toward too much optimism.  If the system is to be easier to understand, complexity needs to be eliminated.  Let’s look at a couple of the complexities.

Under the Rae government, a regulation was instituted limiting the value of an automobile that a person on what is now called Ontario Works could own.  (Incidentally, in accord with the principle of distinguishing between the worthy and the unworthy, a person on disability was and is able to own a car of any value.) 

The firm that produces the automobile red book must have made a killing on sales to Ontario Works offices, as value was determined by reference to that book.  If the value was over $5,000 (a figure since changed), the client had six months to dispose of it and use the amount received to live on or to be deducted from benefits.  Of course by the end of the six months the value might have fallen to less than $5,000.  Otherwise the person could trade it in on another car of lesser value, but the trade-in would not necessarily have left the client with any money.  And what if the person was in the process of applying for ODSP or appealing rejection of an application?  Or re-applying?

Let’s take another even more bizarre example, this one a creation of the Mike Harris regime. 

The regulation provides for differences in eligibility and amount of entitlement depending on whether a person living with a parent is a “dependent” or “independent adult”.  One criterion is whether the person has ever been self-supporting for at least a year. 

How does one go back with a 40-year-old just out of prison, for example, and determine work history from ten or 20 years ago? 

I have certainly not exhausted the complexities in this regulation, but let it be said that the regulation is a complex mess not easily understood.  Why not simply ditch the whole thing?  Its purpose, after all, is simply a punitive exercise in saving money at the expense of the poor.

We should note that it is not just clients who are confused by such regulations.  So are workers and supervisors. 

Certainly that was my experience, and Monia Mazigh, in her book Hope and Despair gives supporting evidence.  She applied for Ontario Works on two occasions while her husband Maher Arar was in a Syrian prison.  Car ownership was the issue.  On neither occasion did either welfare worker apply the regulation correctly.  In any case, the regulation would not have addressed her situation, as the car was in the name of her imprisoned husband. 

One wishes Frances Larkin and Dr. Sheikh good luck in their endeavor.  They will need it.  And the rest of us will not be holding our breath.

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