By Daniel Punch, Sarnia Observer
Wednesday, October 31, 2012
An overhaul recommended for Ontario’s social assistance system could improve life for welfare recipients, but may leave the disabled behind, advocates say.
The much-anticipated report from Ontario’s social assistance review committee recommends combining Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support Program into one program, while encouraging recipients to find employment.
If implemented, the plan would establish a flat rate for social assistance and increase monthly welfare rates by $100.
Social assistance recipients would also be allowed to earn up to $200 before benefit clawbacks kicked in.
Karen Mathewson of Community Legal Assistant Sarnia applauds the proposed increase in welfare rates, but worries the employment focus could mean some ODSP recipients get cut off.
Social assistance clients would have to commit to a ‘Pathway to Employment’ plan, and receive support only if they followed that plan, the report recommends.
That’s similar to the current Ontario Works system, but Mathewson said it could be unfair for recipients with physical or mental disabilities.
“There’s many people in receipt of disability benefits that absolutely can’t work, so it needs to be a system that recognizes that,” she said.
“Right now it looks better for people receiving Ontario Works, and it looks scary for people receiving ODSP.”
The report assumes employers will make accommodations to hire employees on ODSP, Mathewson said. But without proper supports, prospective employers may look past disabled workers, she added.
Union leaders also questioned the potential impact on ODSP recipients. OPSEU president Smokey Thomas says the changes would take money out of the pockets of the most vulnerable.
Combining the two programs would also put ODSP under municipal control. Local governments have the connections needed to help people on disability find employment, the report says.
Lambton County councillor Mike Bradley agreed, noting the county has excellent services for the underprivileged, including the “revolutionary” Circles program.
Local governments already run Ontario Works with the province footing 80% of the bill, said Bradley, who is also Sarnia’s mayor.
Transferring ODSP control to the county would require a similar provincial commitment, but it’s not yet clear how funding would be provided, he said.
“I’m concerned … if the county’s got to absorb the cost on a property tax base,” said Bradley.
The province has downloaded other programs to the municipality without following through financially, Bradley noted, pointing to the Healthy Babies, Healthy Children program as an example.
The province told municipalities it would be funded in full, but froze their contribution and the county has been forced to pick up the financial slack as costs increase, he said.
The report’s 108 recommendations also include an overhaul of disability supplements and the appointment of a Provincial Commissioner for Social Assistance.
Community and Social Services Minister John Milloy called the report valuable, but said the tight budgetary times must be considered before implementing any of the $770 million plan.
Ontario’s legislature is prorogued at least until the new year.
With files from QMI Agency.