On June 23, 2009, the Income Security Advocacy Centre (ISAC) held a forum on the government’s upcoming review of the provincial social assistance system. This review is part of Ontario’s new Poverty Reduction Strategy and was restated in the 2009 budget.
Currently 765,000 people rely on Ontario Works (OW) and the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP). Thousands of newly unemployed Ontarians will soon be forced to turn to these programs. Will they have to use up all of their assets before they are eligible and then be without a nest egg as older persons? Will Ontario make OW and ODSP more accessible so people can more readily get back on their feet financially?
ISAC’s Sarah Blackstock introduced the morning session by stating that Ontario needs a Social Assistance Review that leads to transformation – so that the programs of support promote dignity and a poverty-free Ontario. Four panellists then discussed why we need a Review and how significant change can take place.
Crystal Chin, a current recipient of ODSP and an active advocate on the Barrier Free Council at the Ann Johnston Health Station, spoke of how, when she turned eighteen and became eligible for ODSP, she faced the reality of the same needs and expenses, without the same level of financial support she received previously. “How we treat those on ODSP is a reflection of society’s attitudes”, she concluded.
Angela Robertson, Executive Director of Sistering – A Woman’s Place, stated that income security programs in Ontario are failing and that the ODSP and OW rates are below the poverty line. An effective poverty reduction strategy has to include a meaningful social assistance review. The challenge is whether there is the political will to do this, because there is enough evidence and reports already that support the need for substantial change. From her experience working with women in poverty, she relayed that health status increases as you move up the income ladder, that women are often re-victimized by the social support systems because of high staff turn-over and changing of rules (which discourages building relationships), and that the goals of assistance programs are often at odds with the goals of recipients because they cannot be tailored to particular needs. Her suggestions for improvement include: tying eligibility to human rights, developing a client centred approach that allows people to leave the system, increasing access points by increasing language accessibility, and allowing for flexibility in the delivery of services in terms of hours and portability.
Marion Overholt, Staff Lawyer at Legal Assistance of Windsor, said that assistance has to be changed so it is no longer a poverty trap, but a safety net. She suggested three changes to OW that could happen immediately: we should not strip people of their RRSPs, vehicles, and homes; we need to loosen up the rules so that people can accept help from family and friends; and, we need to allow people on OW to have access to education and training so that we do not recycle OW recipients by disallowing them to transition out through training. Today people in Ontario are losing their lives to chronic illness due to poverty and unemployment. If we want justice we have to walk together so no one gets left behind.
Judy Rebick, well-known social justice activist and holder of the Sam Gindin Chair in Social Justice and Democracy at Ryerson University, said the problem is not one of policy but of vision. A society must have a vision that allows every person to become what he or she wants to be. The punitive poverty policies have to go and people living on the margins have to have a voice in the process because they know better than anyone else what they need to get out of poverty.
Mary Marrone of ISAC concluded the forum by reminding the participants that currently there are no terms of reference for the government’s Social Assistance Review. When it begins it must be an open and transparent process; be collaborative and draw on the expertise of academics, service providers, and people who experience poverty; and, it must ensure that we make changes that can happen quickly.
ISAC has a new website www.sareview.ca where people can share their experience of living on assistance and give their suggestions for how the system could work better.
— This article is from the Summer 2009 newsletter of the Interfaith Social Assistance Reform Coalition – or ISARC. Please visit ISARC’s website at www.isarc.ca for more information about their work. Thanks for their permission to reproduce this article here.