Austerity Mania Threatens Ontario’s Poor and Disabled

Published On Thu Mar 22 2012

A single person on the Ontario Disability Support Program gets a maximum of $1,064.
Melissa Addison-Webster

As a woman with quadriplegia receiving payments from the Ontario Disability Support Program, I am extremely concerned with the present “austerity” agenda the Ontario government is proposing.

The McGuinty government, under the guise of a looming deficit “crisis,” seems poised to cut essential social services, inflicting more pain upon people who already live in a real crisis due to the low levels of social assistance. Overspending on programs did not cause the budget deficit; it was caused by a sluggish economic recovery after the 2008 recession. Cutting jobs and services by 2.5 per cent, as proposed in the Drummond report, will not allow the economy to grow. To address the deficit, the province must not limit itself to cuts alone: revenue increases, such as higher taxes for the wealthy and a freeze on corporate tax cuts, must be part of the plan.

For years, anti-poverty activists have been advocating for increases to social assistance. In 2008, Ontario’s the poverty reduction strategy was released, yet no substantive improvements have occurred in the lives of people living on welfare and ODSP. Monthly rates remain extremely low: A single person on Ontario Works receives a maximum of $599 a month, and a single person on ODSP gets a maximum of $1,064.

Any progress on incomes seems unlikely because of the potentially devastating recommendation from the Drummond report that funding for social assistance increase by only 0.5 per cent. The McGuinty government, which has committed itself to poverty reduction, must recognize that pragmatic welfare reform cannot be created within the austerity agenda.

Welfare reform is the subject of the Commission for the Review of Social Assistance, which is now receiving responses to the options paper released in February. There are some positive points in the options paper, such as raising the allowable asset levels so people don’t have to liquidate their entire savings before receiving assistance. Improving the quality of employment services and decreasing the high level of surveillance within the system are also discussed in the document.

But the options paper does not present an overriding vision for social assistance to guide the programs. Furthermore, the commissioners suggest making radical changes to ODSP rather than fixing the problems within the Ontario Works program. The commission has suggested combining OW and ODSP, and dangerously proposed that people on ODSP could be assessed to measure if they are employable. Individuals who have “severe” disabilities that “prevent” them from working would get a separate income benefit — but who defines what is “severe”?

Defining disability by employability opens the possibility that the non-“severely” disabled could be forced into signing participation agreements, which are used as a punitive tool in OW, that make eligibility for income benefits dependent on enforced involvement in currently inaccessible and inappropriate employment activities. As well, they could impose compulsory treatment and rehabilitation for people with disabilities.

Employment can be a wonderful opportunity for some people on ODSP but current rules do not allow it to be a means of getting out of poverty. Presently, the province claws back 50 per cent of the income I earn. That means if I have a job that pays $13 an hour, I am only really working for $6.50 an hour.

When I make more than the $1,059 a month that I currently get from ODSP — less than $13,000 annual income — I am kicked off the program. This means losing funding for my wheelchairs and my drug and dental coverage. Many similar rules prevent people on OW from finding meaningful work and gaining more independence.

Having people with disabilities enter the job market is complex. I have been employed in the past. But as a woman with quadriplegia, securing suitable employment is challenging. I need a supportive employer who recognizes the complexities of my needs and abilities. Thus, the labour market cannot be seen as the only response to reducing poverty.

The commissioners must not feel pressured to include suggestions from Drummond unless they will improve the lives of people receiving social assistance. The burden of reducing the deficit cannot be borne on the backs of poor people.

Increasing taxes for the wealthy and stopping corporate tax cuts can generate much-needed revenue for the province. To strengthen our economy, Ontario needs to invest in employment and social programs. Even Carlo Cottarelli, director of fiscal affairs at the IMF, has stressed, “there are many other advanced economies, where fiscal policy has more freedom. If growth slows, these countries should avoid further fiscal tightening. They should allow the impact of an economic downturn on revenues and spending on things like unemployment benefits to raise the deficit temporarily.” Premier McGuinty would be well served to heed this advice.

Reproduced from–austerity-mania-threatens-ontario-s-poor-and-disabled