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December 6, 2016

Welfare in Ontario

Reuel S. Amdur

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Ontario has a two-tiered social assistance system. When I came to Canada and Ontario in 1969 they were called Family Benefits and General Assistance. Mike Harris changed them to Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) and Ontario Works (OW).

The amounts for a single person in 1969 were almost the same under each program.  Under Premier William Davis, a decision was made to increase Family Benefits but not General Assistance. 

Since then, the practice was to make increases by percentages, thus increasing the dollar gap between the two programs.  More recently, under the brief stint of Ted McMeekin as Minister of Community and Social Services, the percentage increase was accompanied by a top-up for singles on Ontario Works.

The province has never, during all these years, attempted to relate social assistance rates to what it costs to live.  That is true of Conservative, Liberal, and NDP governments.  Apparently, at some time before my arrival in Canada, rates were related to the moderate but adequate budget calculated by the Social Planning Council of Toronto, but changes in rates did not maintain that rationale.  The lack of any effort to relate rates to need is simply astounding.

To get to the higher level of assistance, a person must be found to be disabled. 

The determination can only be described as seriously flawed.  It used to be that single parent families were eligible for the higher rate, as indicated in the title: Family Benefits.  However, the decision was made to put single parent families down to the lower level of support.  This move, counterintuitive on its face in terms of social policy, has to some extent been mitigated by child benefits measures.

In addition to rates, a variety of rule changes affect the lives of those on social assistance. 

For example, the NDP government instituted a regulation which limited the value of an automobile possessed by people on General Assistance to $5000.  The regulation included a complicated procedure for determining what to do if someone came onto assistance with a car worth more.  Experience with the regulation showed that welfare workers frequently erred in the application of the regulation. 

The NDP government instituted this regulation in response in the House to an attack by Conservatives in the question period about someone on General Assistance who had an expensive vehicle.  The regulation did not affect those on disability benefits.  The worthy poor versus the unworthy poor, it seems.

When Mike Harris came in, many changes were made.  First, rates for Ontario Works were cut 21.6%.  Then a number of other regressive measures were instituted. 

Recipients on social assistance were required to pay $2 per prescription for medicines that were previously free.  A complicated measure was adopted to differentiate between two classes of applicants/recipients of Ontario Works living with family—dependent and independent adults, the purpose being to lessen or eliminate eligibility for the former.  Previously, as well, those over 60 were immediately eligible for the higher level of assistance.  Under Harris, that was eliminated.

One could go on to identify other regressive changes put in place by NDP and Conservative governments, but the fact is that the Liberals have not acted to change or reverse these measures. 

Most notably, there has been no serious change in Ontario Works to reverse the 21.6% cut.  Other regressive changes by Bob Rae’s NDP government and that of Mike Harris remain in effect.  The complicated and hardly capable of application of the policy on Ontario Works car value has been updated as to the value of a car permitted, but the policy itself remains.  It still costs a recipient two dollars for each prescription. 

At age 60, a recipient still remains on Ontario Works.  The complex, convoluted regulation on dependent and independent adults remains on the books.

While the Liberals under Dalton McGuinty and Kathleen Wynne have made some increases in rates, they have not seriously addressed the 21.6% Harris cut in Ontario Works rates.  They have done nothing at all about the drug charges, car valuation regulation, eligibility criteria for singles living with family, and lack of eligibility for ODSP at age 60.  As far as those who receive social assistance are concerned, Mike Harris is still in power.

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On July 7, 2024 in Toronto, Canada, Dimitri Lascaris delivered a speech on the right to resist oppression.

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