Province should go slow on plans for social assistance reform

While the Progressive Conservatives campaigned on making life more affordable for Ontario residents, some of its projects appear to be coming too hastily — after all, the government has yet to see the forensic audit it ordered of the Province’s books and it doesn’t have to win another election right now.

One decision that has been particularly concerning is Tuesday’s announcement that three-per-cent increases for Ontario Works and Ontario Disability Support Pension (ODSP) proposed in the last Liberal budget would be halved.

While Social Services Minister Lisa MacLeod might be right that the 1.5 per cent increase is better than nothing, her announcement fails to account for the fact Ontario’s poorest residents are falling farther behind given the mounting failed policy decisions at the provincial level in recent years. Sure, the three-per-cent hike might be costly to the provincial treasury but one has to look at what has taken place.

To start, the impacts of applying HST on fuel and the introduction of a carbon tax on top of that have increased prices on food, on shelter, and on transportation far beyond that three-per-cent threshold. Energy prices have also climbed dramatically, albeit there are subsidy programs in place for lower income households. Property taxes are also on the rise as municipalities and other public boards struggle to keep up with a severe infrastructure deficit and, often, those prices are passed on to tenants. Rents in many areas of Ontario are higher than people on assistance are able to pay and, in most areas, developers simply aren’t building affordable units. Any changes the Tories can make to stem those problems likely will not be seen overnight either.

Take all of that into consideration, then consider last year minimum wage earners across the province were handed a 21-per-cent pay increase to help them afford those inflated prices, which has — in many cases — cascaded up the pay scale with many employers choosing to bump up staff where they could so they could keep their buying power. A three-per-cent increase on allowances that many argued were not keeping pace already wasn’t going to put a dent in that.

Speaking about the changes, MacLeod quipped “the best social program is a job” and while the sentiment is appreciated, one has to wonder where those jobs are going to come from. It appears some private businesses are attempting to make due with less in terms of employees and hours worked now in the face of those rising costs and likely won’t be hiring. A government that campaigned on reducing the public sector likely isn’t going to be in a rush to provide those jobs either. There’s also a question of if those people on social assistance can fulfill the duties required in the workforce and, at this stage, there’s very little freedom in labour law for alternate arrangements. One might recall how sheltered workshops for ODSP recipients were phased out in the last year, despite them offering individuals incentive pay and other social benefits.

Granted, the new government could change legislation to provide new opportunities and possibly workfare, but that’s a path that will require research, consultation and thought. Right now, some of Ontario’s must vulnerable people being left behind. That’s concerning not only from a humanitarian point of view, but also an economic one in terms of their reliance on health care and other social programs.

No one can argue the fact drastic change is needed, but the election is over. The government should wait for its audit, then design and reveal a full program that can be debated based on merit.

-Adam Bramburger