Government panel says radical reform needed to meet Ontario’s changing economic needs
Ontario should adopt a bold vision for welfare reform that includes new income supports and services for all low-income residents, says a government-appointed panel in a report being released Monday.
“We are currently investing billions into federal and provincial programs that too often trap people in poverty and fail to offer alternatives to social assistance,” said Gail Nyberg of the Daily Bread Food Bank who chaired the panel of anti-poverty experts.
“Tinkering with a broken system will not lead to different outcomes. It’s time to unleash a bold review,” she said.
Social Services Minister Madeleine Meilleur appointed the panel last December to advise the government on the scope and terms of reference for a review of social assistance, promised in 2008 as part of the Liberals’ anti-poverty strategy.
Nyberg acknowledged the panel is recommending a broader vision for welfare reform than the recession-ravaged Liberals may be prepared to consider. But “monkeying” with a system that already has some 800 rules and forces single adults to live on less than half of Statistics Canada’s low-income cutoff, won’t solve anything, she said.
Ontario’s current pre-retirement income security system provides about $26 billion in support, including child benefits, employment insurance and tax credits. Social assistance, which includes Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support Program, accounts for just one-fifth, or $6 billion of that amount, the report notes.
“We need to look at the entire system if we truly want to provide opportunities for all Ontarians,” Nyberg said.
Ideas the review should consider include:
• A universal housing benefit for all low-income Ontarians;
• A short-term non-contributory unemployment income program for the 62 per cent of Ontario workers who aren’t covered by federal EI;
• A beefed-up education and training system for the longer-term unemployed;
• A more generous and less intrusive program for the disabled similar to federal seniors benefits.
The reviewshould also address minimum wage increases, employment standards regulations, fair employment policies and the federal Working Income Tax Benefit to ensure work offers effective pathways out of poverty, says the report.
The panel’s recommended 12- to 18-month review means significant reform is unlikely before the next provincial election in the fall of 2011. But there are still things the government can do now, Nyberg said.
Meilleur has acted on just four of 13 short-term welfare rule changes the panel recommended in January, Nyberg noted. Its top short-term fix — to allow those on welfare to keep more of their savings as a bridge to self-sufficiency — has not been addressed and would help enormously, she said.
The review should map out how the new system would work, what it would cost, how to pay for it and how Ontario, Ottawa and others could build it in stages, the report says.
About 520,000 households, representing about 830,000 adults and children were on welfare in March this year.