Report of the Commission for the Review of Social Assistance in Ontario: Taking Stock Two Years Later

  • Munir A. Sheikh Carleton University

Abstract

In early 2011, the Government of Ontario struck the Commission for the Review of Social Assistance to review the social assistance programs and make recommendations for improving them. The programs were characterized by unsustainable growth in caseloads and program expenditures and poor outcomes for program participants. Imagine the challenges: program costs running far ahead of revenue growth; an incredibly complex system with over 800 rules, 240 benefit rates, 50 children’s benefit rates, and 30 plus specialized benefits for those who qualify; persistent high growth in caseloads of persons with disabilities; and the difficulty for many who leave the program to keep their jobs for long periods of time. The base benefit rate was inadequate, at $600 a month (now $656). However, many receiving specialized benefits face serious disincentives to work, particularly those with disabilities, as such benefits are unavailable outside social assistance, implying an effective clawback rate of 100%. For some it is not worth getting a job, as their welfare benefits are larger than the incomes they can earn. In its final report, the Commission recommended steps to improve system sustainability, reduce complexity and improve work-related outcomes, while providing appropriate income supports during periods of need. The Commission presented its report to the government more than two years ago. It recommended that the program be “transformed” though: eliminating specialized benefits, which would finance a higher basic benefit rate to improve adequacy; providing needed specialized benefits, such as benefits for those with disability and extended health care, outside the program to all who need them to improve work incentives; providing improved and effective employment benefits and services to all who could work, even those with a disability, to improve labour market outcomes; simplifying the program so caseload workers could spend their time helping clients rather than wasting it on figuring out complex rules; and, with these changes, there was no rationale to have two separate programs, one for general welfare clients and the other for people with disabilities, and thus replacing them with one unified program to be delivered by municipalities and funded by the province. The government response can be summarized with four key points. First, it acknowledged the importance of the analysis in the report and the need to transform the program. Second, it has taken steps to raise the level of assistance for single adults relying on Ontario Works, make some income exempt and to make employment supports more effective. Third, it has suggested more consultations and discussions with relevant stakeholders to chart a future course. Finally, the key recommendations in the report that focused on changing the basic program structure, or “transforming” it, have not been acted upon to date. The factors that led to the establishment of the Commission described above continue unabated and indeed have become more serious: program costs are projected to grow 16.1% over three years to 2014-15, outpacing both revenue growth of 8.3% and cumulative inflation of 4 %; caseloads of those with disabilities over the last three years have risen another 7.3%; and the program is as complex today as it was two years ago. In light of this, it has become even more urgent for the Ontario government to transform the program, including changes in its basic structure, consistent with the Commission’s recommendations. The need for reform and the Commission’s recommendations are both clear for improving economic and social outcomes in Ontario.

Published
2015-03-10
Section
Research Papers