On October 24, 2012 the Commission for the Review of Social Assistance in Ontario released its final report, entitled “Brighter Prospects: Transforming Social Assistance in Ontario”. Chaired by Frances Lankin—the former president and CEO of United Way Toronto—and Munir Sheikh—the former head of Statistics Canada (who publicly resigned after the mandatory census was scrapped)—the report includes recommendations that:
- Ontario Works (OW) and the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) merge into a single program to be delivered locally by municipalities;
- municipalities and First Nations (who would help deliver the merged program) hire social assistance recipients as peer navigators to help guide other recipients through the process;
- the existing social assistance rate structure, comprised of hundreds of rates and rate combinations, be simplified into a single standard rate for adults, adjusted for people with disabilities and/or children;
- the overall accountability of the system be strengthened, with a shift in focus from compliance to a system grounded in the overall objective of helping to support people contribute to the labour force or community to their maximum individual potential; and
- the system reform the treatment of earnings for people receiving assistance to exempt up to $200 per month, rather than clawing back those amounts.
A review of social assistance was a central component of the Ontario Government’s 2008 Poverty Reduction Strategy, and the Report is the culmination of 22 months of work. Weighing in at 184 pages and 108 recommendations, the Report has been heralded as “thoughtful”, a “landmark report”, and “hard headed and post partisan” by the media, “welcomed” (here and here) by third sector groups, and is fully supported by several prominent business leaders.
With such a wide coalition of supporters, one would hope that the Ontario Government would begin implementing many of the recommendations contained in the report. However, as the Ontario Legislature was prorogued on October 15, 2012, and given that it appears unlikely to resume until at least January 2013 (when a new leader of the Ontario Liberal Party is selected), it is unclear when the report and its recommendations will be addressed. Ontario now has yet another set of vetted ideas for alleviating poverty, but with Queen’s Park quite for the next three months this plan will do little to help those in need.
Reform to social assistance in Ontario is not the only issue stalled as a result of the prorogation. Measures such as Jayesh’s Law, (which makes it illegal to penalize an employee because of a fuel theft that occurs while the employee is working at the service station),the Anti-Bullying Act, 2012, and Toby’s Act (Right to be Free from Discrimination and Harassment Because of Gender Identity or Gender Expression), 2012 are all stalled, and risk dying on the floor of the legislature if they are not passed before an election is called.
Until the legislature resumes and gets back to the business of governing, “brighter prospects” for social assistance reform (and a slew of other initiatives) are all anyone will have. That means social assistance recipients too.
James Elson is a 2014 MPP candidate at the School of Public Policy and Governance. He is also a practising lawyer in commercial litigation and holds a degree in mechanical engineering. James’ policy interests include science, technology and innovation, health, and education.