Commission for the Review of Social Assistance in Ontario recommends sweeping reforms to create paths into employment and out of poverty
TORONTO, October 24, 2012 /Canada NewsWire/ - Ontario's social assistance system must do a better job of helping people move into employment and supporting all recipients, including those with disabilities, to participate in the workforce to the maximum of their abilities.
These findings are among the comprehensive Brighter Prospects: Transforming Social Assistance in Ontario, the final report to government of the 22-month Commission for the Review of Social Assistance in Ontario, led by Frances Lankin and Munir A. Sheikh. Together, the report's 108 recommendations chart a new course for social assistance towards a simpler, more effective and accountable system that removes barriers to employment and increases opportunities to work.
"Social assistance as it is now sidelines people with disabilities and condemns too many people to a life of poverty and isolation," said Lankin. "We heard from recipients across the province that they want to work, and are able to work, but they need the right support to reach their goals. Putting people on a path to a better life reduces poverty and strengthens our communities, contributing to greater economic prosperity for all Ontarians."
"We urge the government to act on these recommendations. The cost of inaction is simply too high," said Sheikh. "Without transformational change to the social assistance system, caseloads and costs will continue to rise and we will fail to realize the full potential of our valuable human capital."
Highlights of the report include:
...Replacing Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support Program with a single integrated program that provides individualized employment services and related supports to all social assistance recipients, including people with disabilities. The new program would be delivered at the local level by municipalities and First Nations, to build on their understanding of their communities. Municipal management would also leverage connections to local employers and improve access to other necessary services, such as child care and housing.
...Simplifying the benefit structure so that, in a fully transformed system, the only financial benefit provided to recipients through social assistance would be a standard rate for adults living alone or a modified standard rate for people in shared accommodations. The standard rate would be based on a methodology that achieves a balance among three objectives: adequate incomes, fairness between social assistance recipients and low-income workers, and financial incentive to work. Future increases to the rate would reflect differences in living costs across the province.
...Until the system matures, there would be two additional building blocks on top of the standard rate provided through social assistance: a disability supplement and supplements to families with children and sole-support parents. In a fully transformed system, disability, children's and health benefits would be removed from social assistance and made available to all low-income individuals and families, to eliminate structural barriers for people trying to exit the system for work. A new disability benefit outside social assistance is identified as a first priority.
...Providing a clear point of accountability for the system through the appointment of a Provincial Commissioner for Social Assistance, who would drive change and publish an annual report card on the performance of the system.
...Calling on the government to address the issue of rising income inequality and, as well, develop a comprehensive human capital development strategy that would make it possible for work to pay, encouraging recipients of social assistance to exit the program.
"Transformational change will take time but there are priority steps that can happen now, including moving quickly to establish a Provincial Partnership with corporate leaders to champion the hiring of people with disabilities," said Sheikh.
"Throughout the review we engaged with corporate leaders who are already taking action to improve the employment prospects of people with disabilities, and are willing to partner with the government to achieve real change. This early win, combined with other initiatives to support people with disabilities, could have dramatic results."
A Business Advisory Panel on Income Security Reform, chaired by Bill Downe, CEO, BMO Financial Group, provided advice to the Commission over the course of the review. In an open letter to the Premier, the Panel said that they "look forward to being engaged in a new partnership that brings the private sector to the table as the province expands employment prospects for people with disabilities."
"…Helping everyone achieve their potential is simply the right thing to do - for individual Ontarians, for business, for the provincial economy and for a government seeking to secure future sources of revenue."
Early implementation priorities also include changes to improve adequacy in the financial support provided by social assistance, including allowing recipients to keep more of their existing assets and earn up to $200 a month without having their benefits reduced. The Commission is also recommending an immediate increase of $100 a month to the lowest rate category, single adults receiving Ontario Works, as a down payment on adequacy while the system undergoes transformation.
"People receiving the lowest rate simply do not have enough to survive," said Lankin. "Ontario Works recipients without children are living in undeniable poverty, and we urge the government to take immediate steps to improve their situation."
The members of the former Social Assistance Review Advisory Committee (SARAC), a group of leading community advocates chaired by Gail Nyberg, Executive Director, Daily Bread Food Bank, provided the Commission with insight into the impacts of the system on people's lives. SARAC also responded to the report in an open letter to the Premier, stating:
"We applaud the Commission for recognizing the growing consensus in the community regarding urgent issues for reform. These include: reorienting social assistance from a focus on surveillance to offering real supports; improving the availability and quality of employment services; fairer treatment of child support; and concrete steps that lead to increases in incomes, such as rate increases..."
The Commission identified that the costs of the priority steps to begin the transformation would be covered by a combination of administrative savings, reallocations and some new investments by the Province.
About the Commission
In the 2008 Poverty Reduction Strategy, the Ontario government committed to reviewing social assistance, with a focus on removing barriers and increasing opportunities for people to work. It subsequently appointed the Social Assistance Review Advisory Council to provide advice on a proposed scope for the review. Taking into account the advice of this Council, in late 2010 the government announced the appointment of Frances Lankin, United Way Toronto's past President and CEO, and Munir A. Sheikh, Canada's former Chief Statistician, to lead the Commission for the Review of Social Assistance in Ontario.
For additional information, including Fast Facts about Social Assistance, please visit the Commission's website at www.socialassistancereview.ca/final-report