New Ontario Premier wants action on welfare & housing
In a shift from predecessor Dalton McGuinty, newly elected Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne has come out of the gate prioritizing social programs. A welcome change from the austerity budget conversation, Premier Wynne wants action on transit, welfare and would like to see the advent of a national housing strategy.
One of the first priorities mentioned by Ms. Wynne was to implement recommendations made in the recent Social Assistance Review, headed by Frances Lankin and Munir Sheikh. Titled, “Brighter Prospects: Transforming Social Assistance in Ontario”, the final report offers over 180 pages of information on the current welfare system and how it can change to be more effective and accountable. It was the result of years of consultation and analysis which lead to a total of 108 recommendations. Highlights include:
- Immediate increase in benefits by $100 for single persons (bringing the rate to $699 total), which would become the new standard rate
- Create an independent advisory group to establish adequate rates
- Integrate Ontario Works and Ontario Disability Support Program and have the new program delivered at the municipal level
- Welfare rates based on the new standard rate with consideration for those in shared accommodation
- Income exemption of $200, plus half of all income earned after that until it exceeds the welfare amount
- Allow single parents to keep half of child support payments
The McGuinty government had responded to this report by stating that welfare rates would not be raised. This was following funding cuts for the Community Start-Up and Maintenance Benefit (CSUMB), which had helped individuals on social assistance with unexpected housing costs, and ensured people remained housed. Set to take effect on January 1st, 2013, the government announced at the last minute (December 27th) that a one-time funding injection of $42 million would be made for housing and homelessness initiatives. The money is set for municipalities and would restore only half of what the benefit formally had in terms of funds.
Needless to say, Ms. Wynne has taken a different approach to social programs and one that is bound to have a positive effect on poverty in the province if implemented with care and consultation. Ontario has a poverty plan that has been in effect since 2009, however, there have been mixed reviews on the modest progress the province often references.
In the December 2012 press release for the annual report on Ontario’s poverty reduction plan the government highlighted that “40,000 children and their families have been lifted out of poverty since 2008.” Other highlights from government include raising the Ontario Child Benefit, expanding all-day kindergarten, bringing more mental health workers into schools, and free dental care for 33,000 children.
Also mentioned was a 15% increase to social assistance rates, which in reality is not much to brag about. In Toronto, Ontario, where housing was recently categorized as ‘severely unaffordable’, a single person on welfare receives a mere $7,878 annually, just 42% of the LICO-AT suggested poverty line of $18,930 for this category. Each month recipients are expected to find adequate shelter with a meager $372, while the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Toronto is $1,123.
Clearly 15% is not enough to cover access to adequate housing, which means people must make difficult decisions about paying the rent and buying food. Implementing substantial changes, as recommended by the Social Assistance Review report, would be a step in the right direction.
The Ontario Common Front, a coalition of over 90 groups, released a report in August 2012 titled “Falling Behind: Ontario’s Backslide into Widening Inequality, Growing Poverty and Cuts to Social Programs”, which noted that Ontario has seen the biggest increase in income inequality in Canada, and rise in poverty rates between 1981 and 2010. This is also in parallel to increased corporate tax cuts. The report followed a June austerity budget from the McGuinty government which cut funding to social assistance and emergencies for school closures, cancelled hospital projects, and delayed child benefits.
 Government of Ontario, Ministry of Community and Social Services, “Income of Social Assistance Recipients” Table 3: total income from all sources compared to common poverty measures for selected households on Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support Program Toronto April 2010. http://www.mcss.gov.on.ca/en/mcss/publications/social/sarac/recipients_sarac.aspx
 Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, p.51-52.