‘It Breaks My Heart’: Ontarians on Social Assistance are Struggling Even More Amid Inflation

ODSP recipients recently got a 5 per cent rate increase. But advocates say that doesn’t make up for decades of neglect or account for sky-high inflation Written by Kat Eschner
Sep 19, 2022

Mitchell Tremblay turned 40 a few weeks ago. His only wish was for a few months of food security: a total of $1,000 would allow him to get a few extras and not worry so much about eating, he says. Right now, he has about $9.70 per day to eat and pay for everything that isn’t a fixed cost, like housing. That amount dips near the end of the month, as the money runs out.

The Ontario Disability Support Program recipient has also seen that $9.70 go less and less far in recent months. “Going to the grocery store, it breaks my heart,” he tells TVO.org from his rented room in Guelph. “I swear, for a hundred dollars, you get $30 worth of groceries now.”

In households across the province, inflation and rising interest rates mean money is tight. For people reliant on social assistance, they can mean the difference between hunger and a few staples or between housing and homelessness. While the government raised the ODSP rate by 5 per cent this month, that hike still leaves recipients well under the poverty line. Advocates are calling for social assistance rates for both ODSP and Ontario Works to be doubled, a move they say will help stabilize the lives of those on social assistance.

“Before, at the end of the month, I’d have a couple of hundred dollars left,” says Ian Lecocq, an Ontario Works recipient who lives in North York and cares for his two sons, one of whom is disabled and, at 20, requires frequent care and the other who is still in high school. “I don’t have that anymore.”

A 5 per cent rate hike will mean this September’s cheque, which comes at the end of the month, will be about $58 more less than a fifth of what the average Canadian aged 31-50 is predicted to spend on groceries per month in 2022.

This year’s inflation was far from the start of the issues. “It’s this cycle of poverty that we literally can’t get out of,” says Nicole Thompson, a freelance sports videographer in Ottawa whose husband, Cameron Martin, has been an ODSP recipient since 2014. In that time, the couple and their two children have moved three times, and the couple has been informed that their current rental where they sleep in the dining room because the master bedroom is upstairs and difficult for Martin to access may be sold this fall.

TVO.org Explainer: What is food insecurity?

ODSP and Ontario Works rates have long been a hot potato for politicians. When Ford’s Progressive Conservative government took power in 2018, it halved a proposed 3 per cent increase to ODSP, meaning the rate was increased by 1.5 per cent.

Prior to the August 2022 budget, advocates were calling on the government to immediately double social-assistance rates and index them to inflation: “Ontario will not recover fully from the pandemic if people on social assistance are left behind,” reads a July 25 letter from the Income Security Advocacy Centre and signed by more than 230 Ontario social-service and community organizations.

Doubling the rates would then have bumped ODSP for a single person up to $2,338 per month and OW for a single person up to $1,466. “We saw during the pandemic that $2,000 was really seen as the minimum amount that people needed to be able to survive,” Vaugeois says.

Instead, on September 1, the Ford government implemented its own plan: a 5 per cent rate hike. That puts about an extra $58 per month in the pockets of ODSP recipients an amount some called a “slap in the face.” (Ontario Works rates remain unchanged.)

In practical terms, says Maddy Dever, the hike doesn’t keep pace with current inflation or address the impacts of inflation between 2018 and this summer. Dever is a disability and autism advocate who lives in the Ottawa area with their daughter. Core inflation (which is calculated by measuring a “basket” of staples and excluding volatile commodities such as gasoline) is presently at 5.3 per cent, and overall inflation (which includes those commodities and helps inform future prices) sits at 7.6 per cent.

Contacted by TVO.org, Merrilee Fullerton the Ontario minister whose portfolio includes social assistance declined to be interviewed. Responding to a question about ODSP and OW rates raised in the house by Vaugeois on August 17, Fullerton said that “the Premier has stated that we will support those in need, and our government is taking meaningful steps forward in this very way.”

Patrick Bissett, press secretary for the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services, did not respond directly to questions from TVO.org but sent a statement that echoed previous government statements regarding the 5 per cent ODSP rate hike, which on paper is the largest single percentage raise since the program was introduced by Mike Harris’s government in 1998. “In addition to these historic changes, our government also invested over $1 billion through the Social Services Relief Fund and expanded access to temporary emergency assistance for those in financial crisis during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Bissett wrote.

Since returning to sitting on August 8, the Opposition has repeatedly raised the issue of ODSP and OW rates. In early September, Vaugeois and four of her NDP MPP colleagues went on a “social assistance diet.” For two weeks, they ate only what they could buy with $95.21. The stunt was intended to draw attention to the plight of ODSP and OW recipients, says Vaugeois, who is the provincial NDP critic for Persons With Disabilities and Accessibility. The MPPs also wanted to raise awareness about the push to double ODSP and OW rates. However, Vaugeois says, despite regular questions in session from NDP MPPs, “we’re not seeing any movement.”

“Doubling ODSP would bring us slightly above the 2020 poverty line of $2,200,” says Dever.

Dever, who is autistic, was on ODSP before the pandemic but was able to work part-time as a freelance graphic designer, which provided some extra funds. They were in a motor-vehicle collision early in the pandemic and have been in a wheelchair since and unable to work.

For Dever, that additional money could bring much-needed stability and provide a buffer. “What’s the priority? Rent and food,” they say. “Everything else gets juggled around.”

For Thompson’s family, doubling the rates would mean extracurricular activities for the kids, paying down debt, potentially becoming foster parents, and maybe even fixing her front tooth, which was broken in an accident earlier this year. “It would mean the ball of stress I constantly live with might go away,” she says.

After much internal debate, Tremblay launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise that extra $1,000. “I really don’t like doing that and having to beg,” he says. He’s been on ODSP since 2008, and this isn’t the first time he’s had to turn to crowdfunding to get out of a tight spot. The desperation and instability of trying to make a living on ODSP have taken some of his best years, he says.

Now, at 40, he doesn’t want to see another birthday: he’s has been seeking sponsorship for a Medical Assistance in Dying application, something for which he won’t be eligible until the spring. Others have sought MAiD because of their inability to afford to live on social assistance or access safe housing while disabled one of the outcomes that disability advocates raised the alarm about before the Criminal Code was changed to broaden access to assisted death.

“My heart goes out to anyone who’s in that situation,” Fullerton said in the house on August 22. “That’s why we’re working across government to make sure that we put in the supports needed for people in these situations.”

Even if rates were raised tomorrow, Tremblay thinks he’d still pursue MAiD. Years of relying on social assistance first OW, then ODSP have left him with ruined teeth and myriad health issues, both mental and physical. But he hopes that by speaking out, he can raise awareness that will help others.

While overall inflation in Canada seems to have peaked, analysts predict that many goods and services Ontarians rely on will continue to go up in price throughout the fall. For social-assistance recipients, each increase in price in a good or service they need means a corresponding decrease in the fixed amount of money they have for everything else.

The PCs have repeatedly said that they will tie future rate increases for ODSP to inflation in law each rate increase would, therefore, in some way keep up with the actual buying power of what recipients get in each cheque.

“ODSP increases aligned with inflation will be implemented by our government via regulation,” Bissett told TVO.org by email last week. Details will come at a later date, he said.

At time of publication, no legislation to this effect is before the house.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

Kat Eschner

Kat Eschner is TVO.org’s Affordability Reporter.

Original at https://www.tvo.org/article/it-breaks-my-heart-ontarians-on-social-assistance-are-struggling-even-more-amid-inflation