Ontario is in a state of unprecedented crisis. While the province recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic-induced shock on its socio-economic structure, Ontario’s low-income and vulnerable population have seen their poverty and marginalization increase in almost every measure of poverty while dealing with soaring inflation and costs of living. In 2022, 18.7 per cent, or almost one in every five households, in Ontario was food insecure, a 2.6 per cent increase from 2021. The average rent has skyrocketed to $2,496, with up to a two-digit year-over-year increase in some regions in Ontario. Nearly two in five Ontarians are in core housing need, spending more than 30% of their income on housing, while the number of unhoused people in cities and regions across Ontario continues to grow at an unacceptable rate. The list goes on.
Low-income Ontarians, including almost one million who rely on social assistance, are left with little to confront this crisis. Provincial social assistance rates have remained shockingly outdated and unjustifiably low, which are further subject to aggressive clawbacks for every dollar earned through work or from federal benefits. As a result, vulnerable Ontarians remain ill-equipped to live a healthy and dignified life, and leave a state of chronic poverty.
Ontario’s social assistance benefits and system need a massive upgrade. However, instead of addressing the fundamental challenges of unaffordability and inadequacy, the province’s response has been to undertake a modernization of social assistance with a focus on administrative restructuring and digitalization for more streamlined delivery. This has raised many questions about the adequacy of investment into the program, appropriateness and accessibility of the essential services, and transparency of the co-designing process, among others. Failure to address these concerns risks creating an unsustainable and fragmented model that poses more bureaucratic hurdles for social assistance recipients and leaves them without any tangible support to find their way out of poverty.
The province’s social assistance modernization is an extension of its poverty reduction strategy that has prioritized increasing employment and reducing social assistance caseloads as poverty reduction measures. While these factors are important, eliminating poverty requires specific targets, timelines, indicators, and accountability for the success of the poverty reduction strategy and social assistance programs. Unfortunately, the strategy falls considerably short in these crucial areas.
If a society is judged by how it treats its most vulnerable, Ontario’s approach to poverty reduction attains a nearly failing grade. The early pandemic and its current phase have further exposed the ever-increasing inequities within society. The last four years have amplified the vulnerability and marginalization of low-income Ontarians, especially for newcomers, women, single mothers, people with disabilities, racialized people, and Indigenous community members, all of whom continue to be disproportionately affected by poverty.
The provincial budget is an opportunity to change course. It is an opportunity for the government to commit, support and invest in bold and instrumental policies that ensure a life of income security, equity, and opportunity for all Ontarians, especially the ones falling further behind.
ISAC’s ten recommendations, listed below, have been developed through ongoing consultation with our community partners, and shed light on the most urgent investment priorities for low-income Ontarians in the province. We hope that the province takes them into account with due importance.
Fix Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support Program
- Index Ontario Works rates to inflation and double Ontario Works rates
- Increase Ontario Works recipients’ earnings exemptions to $1000 per month
- Double the Ontario Disability Support Program rates taking into consideration the impact of inflation and the higher cost of living faced by people with disabilities
- End clawbacks on current federal income supports and any future federal income supports
- Eliminate the $10,000 limit on voluntary gifts and payments for OW, and raise the limit on cash and other liquid assets to $50,000 for OW recipients and $100,000 for ODSP recipients
Stop punishing people for accessing federal benefits during the pandemic
- Forgive all overpayments due to federal pandemic emergency benefits and work with the federal government to forgive all outstanding federal emergency pandemic debt owed by people living on low incomes
Ensure no social assistance recipient is adversely affected by social assistance modernization
- Invest in robust and client-centred life stabilization supports, and implement transparent, evidence-based employment services
Eliminate the digital disadvantage experienced by low-income Ontarians
- Introduce a new $100 per month digital access benefit for all Ontarians receiving social assistance
Support Ontario workers so they can live a dignified, just, and healthy life
- Immediately increase the minimum wage to $20 per hour to bring it closer to the living wage
- Amend the Employment Standards Act, 2000 to introduce 10 days of employer-provided emergency leave and an additional 14 days of paid emergency leave during public health emergencies
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