Hamilton Ontario Works recipients staying in system longer

The number of Hamiltonians on Ontario Works (OW) is decreasing slightly each year, but those who receive it are staying on it for an average of more than two years - the longest stretch in recent memory.

More than one-thirds of recipients have been on it more than 2 years

New figures show that the number of Hamilton residents on social assistance is slowly returning to pre-recession levels. But those receiving it are having a harder time getting off it.

The average time spent on Ontario Works before the 2009 recession was 18 months. So far in 2013, it's more than two years — 27.5 months.

The city is spending $5,735,800 over the next two years to try to bring those numbers down. To do that, it will keep 30 workers hired to work more intensely with local OW recipients, said Joe-Anne Priel, general manager of community services.

Ontario Works by the numbers

Number of OW recipients in Hamilton in May: 12,950

Number who have been on it less than one year: 48%

Number on it between one and two years: 22%

Number on it for more than two years: 29%

"We believe the more intensive case management we can provide, the better results we'll have," she said.

It's a dynamic that started around 2009, when Hamilton was hit by a global recession that put jobs in short supply. With that, OW caseloads increased. There were 9,753 OW cases in 2007, Priel said, compared to 13,330 in 2010.

In 2009, the city hired 30 extra staff to deal with the increase, paying for it using an OW reserve.

The goal of reducing the caseload has been working. As of May, there are 12,950 Hamiltonians on OW. That number is expected to be about 10,000 by 2016.

But for those on it, the jobs just aren't there, Priel said. And that's why they have a hard time leaving it.

Hamilton's unemployment rate looks good on the surface, she said. But that only encompasses people actively looking for work, not those who have given up on finding work.

The recently employed "are going to get a job faster than someone on the social assistance caseload because (an OW recipient) has multiple barriers," Priel said.

The money will allow the city to keep the workers until April 2015. This will decrease the client-to-case manager ratio so the workers can work more intensively with OW recipients struggling to find employment.

As of May, the participant-to-case manager ratio is 127:1, Priel said. The optimal ratio is 110:1.

One-third have been on it more than two years

Nearly half of OW recipients have been on social assistance for less than one year. Twenty-two per cent have been on it for one to two years, and the remaining — nearly one third — have been on OW longer than two years.

The dynamic doesn't surprise Tom Cooper, director of the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction. Lower-income Hamiltonians are still reeling from job losses incurred during the recession, he said.

"Many low-income individuals in our community are continuing to have a very, very tough time getting back into the economy," he said. "They haven't had any opportunities after months and months of looking."

"Low-income individuals were the first to be hit by the impact of the recession, and they're the last to see any benefit from the so-called recovery."

The city's emergency and community services committee accepted the plan on July 10. That decision will be ratified at a council meeting Friday.