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National Newswatch
National Opinion Centre

Social assistance in Ontario is a waste of time and money.

The goals of social assistance – providing financial assistance to people in great need and helping them find work – are among the most important things government can do. But the current system wastes countless hours on paperwork and red tape. And the government wastes precious resources on programs that don’t actually help people improve their lives.

Social assistance is made up of Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support Program. Together they provide a vital lifeline for over 900,000 Ontarians in serious financial need. That’s an investment that’s important to our economy and to living up to Canadian values. It has to be preserved and improved.

Just look at the results the system is getting now.  Social assistance is supposed to be a safety net so that people can meet basic needs. But A single adult receiving Ontario Works benefits can count on a maximum of about $25/day. Families may receive additional federal and provincial child benefits, but this still leaves them below the poverty line. More than two-thirds of clients of Daily Bread and North York Harvest Food Banks list social assistance as their main source of income. Social assistance isn’t enough to keep a person fed.

It also doesn’t get people into employment. Only 10-13% of Ontario Works Employment Assistance clients moved into work over a 5-year period.

The disappointing results aren’t surprising when we look at how the system is designed. A huge amount of time and money is spent on paperwork and reporting by recipients. Every month clients have to report how they are spending their time, their earnings, and changes in their family situation. If they fail to do tasks like go to resume writing sessions or job search activities, they could lose their only source of support. These reporting requirements and other needless paperwork produce 47,000 pieces of paper each day and take countless hours that could be better spent elsewhere.

Social assistance resembles probation more than the design of any other benefit program. For the Canada Child Benefit, parents simply have to check a box on their tax form and provide some basic information about their kids’ ages.

And there’s no evidence that the reporting requirements and activities that generate all this paperwork actually help people find work. But they do contribute to the shame and stigma associated with poverty.

If people do succeed in finding work, they often find a social assistance system working against their success instead of supporting it. After the first $200 of income each month (a few hours per week at minimum wage), Ontarians have to pay back to the government 50 cents of each dollar they earn. With monthly fluctuations in hours, this can make it very hard to plan to make rent and other bills. And when people reach a point where they no longer qualify for social assistance, they are likely to lose access to their health benefits (which are increasingly unlikely to come with lower-wage jobs).

At the beginning of October, Ontario Minister of Children, Community and Social Services Todd Smith paused some changes announced last year as the government re-thinks its approach. This is a great opportunity for the government to think long-term about improving the system to help people succeed.

In a policy paper released this week by the Ontario 360 project, we put forward recommendations for the government to consider as they move forward. These include:

  • Take the government’s commitment to reducing red tape and apply it to social assistance. Start designing the program with a blank slate and only use activities and requirements that evidences shows will improve outcomes.
  • Reduce the cost of working while on social assistance, by reducing clawback rates and making sure people can access essential benefits like health insurance as they transition to work.
  • Improve rates and connect people with the other supports they need such as childcare, access to affordable housing and mental health supports.
  • Invest in outcomes-based funding that focuses on people’s success – place some accountability on the system for delivering results instead of on people for reporting on their day-to-day-life.

And most importantly, the government should listen to and learn from people who depend on social assistance about what they need.

Until we change the system to work with people rather than against them, we won’t break the cycle of poverty.

Noah Zon is the co-founder of Springboard Policy, a public policy research and advisory firm based in Toronto. Before Springboard, Noah was the Director of Policy and Research at the Maytree Foundation in Toronto focused on policy change to reduce poverty in Canada.

Thomas Granofsky is an author and policy researcher. He spent the last several years working in the Ontario Government, most recently as Senior Policy Advisor to the Associate Deputy Minister in the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care.

The views, opinions and analyses expressed in the articles on National Newswatch are those of the contributor(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the publishers.
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