Advisers aim to fix Ontario's welfare 'quagmire'

December 02, 2009
Laurie Monsebraaten

Ontario has appointed the head of Toronto's Daily Bread Food Bank to head a panel of anti-poverty advocates to advise the government on a long-awaited review of its welfare system, the Star has learned.

"If this group can't make the proper recommendations, then nobody can," said food bank executive director Gail Nyberg.

Almost 800,000 Ontarians - including about 236,000 children and about 260,000 disabled people - live on provincial welfare and disability supports that leave most of them trapped in grinding poverty and despair.

Complex and confusing rules mean that for every dollar earned by a person on welfare or disability support, government cheques are cut by 50 cents. If they are living in subsidized housing, their rent goes up, too.

If two single people on social assistance rent an apartment together to save money, both will see the shelter component of their cheques reduced accordingly, making it almost impossible to get ahead.

Welfare rates were cut 22.6 per cent by the Mike Harris Tories in 1995 and frozen for eight years until the Liberals in 2004 began a series of small annual increases totalling 11 per cent.

In 2007, Statistics Canada considered a single person in a city the size of Toronto living on less than $17,954 after taxes to be living in straitened circumstances.

A single person on welfare receives a maximum of $7,020 a year. A single disabled person gets $12,504. In real terms, that's more than 20 per cent below what people on social assistance received during the recession of the early 1990s.

"Social assistance is such a quagmire. It's like flypaper. Once you are into it, you just can't get out," said advisory panel member Pat Capponi, who has lived on disability support and who now heads Voices from the Street, a program that helps homeless and other low-income people advocate for change.

Capponi is working with the food bank to set up an expert panel of Ontarians on social assistance to give the government first-hand information about what needs to change.

"I'm really, really pleased they are doing the review," she said. "And I'm excited about being able to bring all this lived experience through our expert panel to the group."

The nine-person social assistance review advisory group will be announced by Social Services Minister Madeleine Meilleur Wednesday as part of the province's first annual report on its poverty reduction plan, government sources said.

The review was promised a year ago as part of the province's poverty reduction plan. Panel member Mary Marrone said she hopes the review will transform social assistance into a program that helps people escape poverty.

"The expertise that we bring to the table is very important because it comes out of the work we do with local legal clinics on the systemic problems with social assistance that their clients face every day," said Marrone, advocacy director of the Income Security Advocacy Centre, which lobbies on behalf of low-income Ontarians.

The advisory panel, which will meet with Meilleur before Christmas, will help the government finalize the scope of the review and start work in the New Year on both short- and long-term changes, the source said. The review is expected to be complete by the end of 2010.

Other members of the advisory panel are Pedro Barata of the Atkinson Foundation; Colette Murphy of the Metcalf Foundation; former senior provincial social services bureaucrat John Stapleton; Michael Oliphant of the Daily Bread Food Bank; Michael Mendelson of the Caledon Institute and Kira Heineck of the Ontario Municipal Social Services Association.  

___________ Kim Steele Senior Coordinator, Government Relations
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