Higher financial assistance rates, accessible supports cited as keys to improving social assistance system

Increased financial assistance and more accessible community supports and mental health treatment are among the changes needed to improve Ontario’s social assistance system, says Wellington County’s top social services administrator.

Among the first acts of Ontario’s new Progressive Conservative government were to cancel a basic income pilot program and cut a three per cent increase to social assistance income rates planned by the previous Liberal government to 1.5%.

At the same time, Minister of Children, Community and Social Services Lisa MacLeod announced the government would be launching a review of the entire slate of income assistance programs provided by the province. MacLeod called the existing programs, a “mess” and “patchwork.” The government stated the review would be done within 100 days of the July 31 announcements.

The Guelph-Wellington Task Force on Poverty Elimination, in a statement provided by coordiantor Randalin Ellery, denounced all three moves.

“This is a blow to those in deepest poverty and fails to make critical progress toward adequacy,” the group stated in response to the reduction in rate increase.

The task force statement said the new review was unnecessary, pointing out it would be the third within the past seven years.

“We need to build on work already done and move forward with adequate rates and supports,” the group stated.

In 2017, there were 363 Ontario Works cases in Wellington County, representing 637 individuals, including spouses and dependent children, reliant on Ontario Works for income support. Throughout the Guelph-Wellington region the Ontario Works caseload was 2,068, with a total of 3,638 beneficiaries.

The region has a population of more than 220,000, with nearly 132,000 in Guelph and just under 91,000 in the county.

A 2017 Ontario Works Caseload profile shows the caseload rose by 13 per cent, from 1,820 in 2011 to 2,056 in 2016. During the same period, the population of Guelph and Wellington County rose by only 8.3 and 4.9 per cent respectively. However, the report notes, the percentage of the population reliant on Ontario Works in Guelph and Wellington, is relatively low at approximately 1.6% compared to 3.4% provincially. The majority of the caseload, 82.2%, was in Guelph.

Wellington County Social Services administrator Eddie Alton notes that both locally, and across the province, individuals are staying on benefits for longer periods of time.

In a June 13 report to Wellington County’s social services Committee, Ontario Works director Stuart Beaumer stated the caseload is “trending towards longer reliance on Ontario Works for income support,” with a “notable increase” in the proportion of the caseload receiving assistance for more than five years.

“Ontario Works recipients present with complex challenges and multiple barriers to employment, including poorer physical and mental health, and experiences of abuse and trauma that impact the ability to work and be financially self-sufficient,” Beaumer explained in the report.

Alton feels education and skill levels are also a factor keeping people on benefits longer. Compared to the general population in Guelph and Wellington, he told the Advertiser in an email, a significantly higher proportion of clients on the Ontario Works caseload have not completed high school.

“Although we have seen a gradual decrease in the proportion of Ontario Works recipients who have not completed high school, in Wellington, 14.7% of the population reports less than high school as their highest level of education completed, while this figure is 41% for those in receipt of Ontario Works. So what we see in our area is a significant skills mismatch taking place whereby unemployed workers with low skill sets cannot find work or are caught in the ‘find employment only to lose employment cycle.’  To complicate the skills mismatch, the lack of public transportation and affordable housing continue to present challenges for both employers and workers in the county,” Alton said.

The limited level of existing benefits may be contributing to the cycle of dependency, Alton suggests.

Current maximum monthly rates for Ontario Works recipients (rates are the same across the province except for remote northern regions) include:

– single recipients- $721;

– single parent one child- $986;

– single parent two children – $1,040;

– couple – $1,118;

– couple with one child – $1,172;

– couple with two children – $1,230;

– single person on the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) – $1,151;

– single person on ODSP with one child – $1,574; and

– couple on ODSP with two children – $1,858.

The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) estimates that the average market rent for a bachelor apartment in the Guelph-Wellington area is $749, which exceeds the maximum amount of assistance that a single recipient on Ontario Works receives for all of their living needs. Alton points out local rents tend to be higher than the CMHC average, meaning, “Ontario Works recipients have challenges taking care of daily needs because the cost of living is disproportionately higher than assistance levels.”

Alton says inadequate assistance levels and lack of housing make it challenging to assist clients in “stabilizing their situation” and helping them to move forward.

“Assistance levels do not allow clients to find and maintain appropriate housing, since the average market rents exceed the amounts available to recipients for covering their shelter costs,” he explained. “Wellington County has a low unemployment rate and a robust local labour market, but we are seeing that our clients have long standing and complex barriers to employment, such as mental health and addictions challenges. Wait lists for treatment are very long, and this poses another challenge in being able to help clients stabilize before they are ready to secure and maintain employment.”

Improving the situation, he suggests, “requires higher assistance rates and a system-wide approach with more accessible community supports, supportive housing, and addictions and mental health treatment.”

Despite the challenges, Alton points out Wellington County consistently outperforms other jurisdictions and exceeds the provincial average in the percentage of Ontario Works recipients who are actively working, as well the percentage of recipients leaving assistance because they have secured employment.

“The Wellington County Ontario Works office provides a wide range of non-financial supports to help improve outcomes for current recipients. Our employment team works diligently to link clients to jobs and help them prepare for employment, and our caseworkers work closely with clients to provide options and develop action plans, follow up with clients and provide referrals to other community supports,” he explains.

“We also have three specialized caseworkers who provide intensive supports to clients struggling with significant substance misuse and mental health issues that prevent them from gaining financial independence,” he adds.

The county also runs a Getting Ahead program twice per year. The three-week intensive programme involves facilitators working with participants to create an action plan and work towards a sustainable and self-sufficient future. Some Getting Ahead participants also go on to the Circles Guelph-Wellington program, which is a community-based initiative with a focus on building relationships across socio-economic boundaries to help low-income individuals and families access skills, networks, and resources necessary to move them out of poverty and towards financial self-sufficiency.

Ontario Works recipients can also access basic health care coverage to assist with the cost of prescription medication and some basic medical needs. If they secure employment, they can keep their Ontario Works health benefits for a period of time to bridge the gap while waiting for their employer benefits to begin.

“Access to these health benefits assists recipients to manage their physical health, take care of chronic conditions and provide support to those who are starting work to maintain their employment,” said Alton.

“Working poor”

Social assistance recipients aren’t the only one’s struggling today’s economy, In Guelph-Wellington about five per cent of the working age population is considered to be in the “working poor” category, according to a December 2017 report from the poverty elimination task force. The task force defines working poor as individuals that make over $3,000, but less than the “median low income” after-tax. The term refers to individuals living independently between 18 and 64, not including students.

While the province’s now-cancelled guaranteed income pilot project was not being conducted locally, the task force has expressed support for the idea.

In a 2016 statement, the organization took the position, “Poverty is an urgent human rights and social justice issue for local, provincial, and federal governments. A basic income guarantee is required as part of a coherent strategy to effectively eliminate poverty.”

Following the cancellation of the pilot project, Task Force officials stated, they were “incredibility disappointed,” with the decision.

“This move effectively cancels the dignity, independence and health offered to pilot participants and fails to consider potential future impacts on that a basic income could have on eliminating poverty.”

In the Dec. 2017 report which focused on the plight of the working poor the task force reported:

– 66% of the working poor do not make enough to support their family;

– 18% have multiple jobs to makes ends meet;

– 11% think they will have enough money to retire at 65 years old;

– 71% have trouble accessing food;

– and 52% do not have enough income to meet basic needs.

Employment barriers faced by the working poor include transportation, inadequate health benefits and costs for accessing health care, the report indicates.