Widespread uncertainty ahead of Ontario's social assistance revamp

Ontario's self-imposed deadline to complete a review of social assistance programs is fast approaching and recipients are nervous, according to those with work with them.

The Ford government's 100-day review of social assistance programs ends on Nov. 8

Ontario's Social Services Minister Lisa MacLeod speaks to reporters. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

There's widespread uncertainty and fear among social assistance recipients in Ontario as a deadline nears for the completion of a review of programs that help the poor, advocates say. 

In the summer, the newly-elected Progressive Conservative government cut a planned increase to social assistance in half. It also hit "pause" on a number of Liberal reforms that had long been requested by those who work with Ontario Works (OW) and Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) recipients.

The Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services said it would take 100 days to review the programs. That 100 days ends Nov. 8, and uncertainty about what changes could be in the works has many worried. 

I would say the impact on people who rely on the program is, at best, fear and anxiety and at worst, despair.- Mary Marrone, Income Security Advocacy Centre

"There is huge uncertainty. We have no idea what's coming. We all agree there's a need for reform. I think what concerns me is that this government has made it clear that their top priority is reducing the deficit and good reform of social assistance requires investments," said Mary Marrone, director of advocacy and legal services at the Income Security Advocacy Centre in Toronto. 

"I would say the impact on people who rely on the program is, at best, fear and anxiety and at worst, despair."

Thousands of people in the province rely on ODSP as their only source of income and any cuts would be devastating, Marrone said. 

The Income Security Advocacy Centre has written a letter to Social Services Minister Lisa MacLeod, asking her to respect those living on social assistance as she conducts her review. 

'Relying on rumours'

Because ODSP and OW come with many rules, recipients are worried that any missteps could result in benefit claw-backs, said Rob Spencer, a London, Ont. paralegal who helps people appeal who have been denied OW and ODSP. 

"There were a lot of changes that were coming that were positive, and with those paused, there's a worry about what will be taken away and what will be reinstated," Spencer said. 

"No one is here by choice. They have no other choice." 

Although there's fear among social assistance, there's also apprehension among those who work with the recipients, Spencer said. 

Without any information, people are relying on rumours about what changes could be imminent, he said. 

"People don't know what's going on, they just know there will be budget cuts. Everyone has heard this rumour or that rumour," Spencer said. 

Although MacLeod has said Liberal-era social assistance created a system of "handouts," adding that "the best social program is a job," she's seen by advocates as more moderate than Premier Doug Ford himself. 

"We've seen that ministers can influence the premier, and she does say encouraging things, compassionate things," said London, Ont., lawyer, Jeff Schlemmer, an advocate for the poor who says he remembers former Mike Harris' welfare reforms with disgust. 

Schlemmer cited Health Minister Christine Elliott's recent announcement about keeping supervised drug consumption sites open as an example of a minister influencing the premier. 

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services said any changes to support programs will not be announced until after the review period.

"We have spoken with stakeholders and those with lived experience and are finalizing a plan for a sustainable social assistance program that focuses on helping people lift themselves out of poverty," wrote the ministry's Kristen Tedesco in an email to CBC News.

"At this point we have nothing further to share." 

About the Author

Kate Dubinski

Reporter/Editor

Kate Dubinski is a radio and digital reporter with CBC News in London, Ont. You can email her at kate.dubinski@cbc.ca.