Looming changes to social assistance worry anti-poverty advocates

As the province gets set to release reforms to social assistance on Thursday, anti-poverty advocates in Waterloo region express concern there could be more cutbacks for the most vulnerable members of society.

'The best social program is a job,' Minister Lisa MacLeod said earlier this month

Members of Alliance Against Poverty attend an event to call on the provincial government to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour. (Alliance Against Poverty/Facebook)

Louise Murray needs a new walker.

The one she has doesn't have brakes, the wheels have no tread and the seat is ripped.

The 63-year-old Kitchener resident is concerned changes to the province's social assistance — expected to be announced Thursday by Minister of Children, Community and Social Services Lisa MacLeod — will mean she won't get what she needs.

But even more, she's worried about what potential cuts could mean for others.

"My main concern is that they don't take away any more from people," said Murray, who is also a member of a region-wide group called Alliance Against Poverty.

She considers herself "one of the lucky ones," because she gets financial help through the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) and she lives in subsidized housing.

But even with that, she often struggles to make ends meet.

"I don't make it through on my own like I think I do, because I'm hitting the food banks all the time and I'm also— Some of my friends, I have a very good friend who throws me $20 here and there and I also collect bottles and cans and scraps," she said.

"I'm doing all this stuff to make ends meet and some months, I don't even make ends meet."

Murray says she no longer has a vehicle, because she couldn't afford it.

"Now that I've given up my truck, I can't get out there and do my scraping and collecting as much as I used to because it's just not very kosher to take scrap on the bus with you."

'Our government is very compassionate'

MacLeod has been working to "fix" Ontario's social assistance system. An announcement on changes to ODSP and Ontario Works — or welfare — was expected on Nov. 8, 100 days after she announced the review, but MacLeod postponed it.

Instead, she said she would share the province's plan for social assistance reform on Nov. 22.

In an interview with CBC News, MacLeod said she thought "people will be pleasantly surprised" by the changes.

"Our government is very compassionate and understands that the services we provide are for Ontario's most vulnerable," she said.

Minister of Children, Community and Social Services Lisa MacLeod speaking at an event in Ottawa. She has said she will announce changes to social assistance programs on Thursday. (Giacomo Panico/CBC)

'I am really scared'

Martin Suter is also with the group Alliance Against Poverty, which focuses on three issues affecting people in Waterloo region: income, transit and housing.

He didn't want to comment on what the reforms could look like, noting it would just be speculation, but he did say how he was feeling as he waits.

"I can tell you right now, I've been waiting for this. I heard about this when they first announced this 100 day review and I am really scared," he said.

Oscar Cole-Arnal is also a member of the group and he worries what possible cuts could mean.

"We think that any attempt to cut it back would be flat out wrong. It's needs [to be] expanded rather than cut back," he said.

Rent can be expensive

The numbers show people receiving support through welfare or disability do not get much to live on. From 2017 to 2018, a single person got $721 a month on Ontario Works. That's broken down to $337 for basic necessities, such as food, transportation, phone and internet, and $384 for shelter allowance, which includes rent, utilities and tenant insurance.

Last year a single person received just over $1,100 on disability. That's broken down to $489 for shelter and $662 for basic necessities.

The region's Homelessness and Housing Umbrella Group reported the average rent last December for a bachelor apartment was $736.

Pad Mapper, which tracks rental prices across the country, reported in October the rent for a one bedroom apartment in Kitchener was more than $1,100.

"Either you rent and starve or you eat and have no place to live," Cole-Arnal said.

Listen to a segment discussing potential reforms to social assistance on The Morning Edition:

Not as easy as just getting a job

MacLeod said one in seven people in Ontario live in poverty.

"The best social safety net is a compassionate and caring society where everyone, not just government, is part of the solution. The best social circumstances are when those who are able, actively participate in the workforce. And the best social program is a job," she said in her statement Nov. 7.

That concerns Murray.

"It sounds like they really, really want people to get out there working and believe me, a lot of us would like to get out there working, but we can't," she said.

Murray volunteers her time and says she's talked to people on Ontario Works. Some of them are battling addictions to drugs or alcohol.

"I do feel for those people," she said.

"Somehow, they got pulled into that and I don't think that half of them wanted to do that, or they wanted to try it and they got hooked, and that's a terrible thing," she added. "I've seen: they can't manage. They wouldn't manage a job. They would need a lot of help to get off their substance abuse to get a job."

Murray adds she hears the comments from people who say people on welfare are lazy. But she now knows there's so many more factors at play.

"I used to say the same things people do now. 'These people should get off welfare and go get a job so that I don't have to pay so much tax.'" she said. "But now that I'm not on it, it doesn't seem that easy. I see a whole different picture."


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