Social assistance changes could leave people behind, advocates warn

There are concerns that changing Ontario's rules about who qualifies for ODSP could disqualify people who would currently be eligible.

Province to update disability requirements, allow welfare recipients to earn more money

Andrew Balenda receives Ontario disability benefits. He attended a rally organized by ACORN to express concerns about the impact of the proposed reforms. (Matthew Kupfer/CBC)

The Ontario government's reforms to social assistance are raising concerns that some people — especially those with disabilities — could be left behind.

The province said Thursday it would be changing the definition of "disability" to match what the federal government uses.

The federal government doesn't identify a single definition for its programs.

Minister of Children, Community and Social Services Lisa MacLeod said people who already receive benefits will be able to continue.

She wouldn't speculate on how many people might be affected by these changes.

Lisa MacLeod, Ontario's Minister of Children, Community and Social Services announced changes to the province's social services system Thursday. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

Doug Pawson, director of social business and social finances at Ottawa's Causeway Work Centre, said some people who don't meet the federal threshold for disability rely on provincial benefits to survive.

"They're going to fall through the cracks," Pawson said.

"These are going to be people we would see on a daily basis: people who have experienced homelessness and trauma and may not have a diagnosed disability that would qualify, but need the support of social assistance."

Andrew Balenda, who receives Ontario disability benefits, fears changes to social assistance could worsen his already dire financial situation. 0:39

Andrew Balenda said his medical disabilities keep him from working and he wanted to see an increase in benefits — since it's hard to even keep up with rent.

"With regard to everyday living, out of fairness, they should make the adjustments so that we can live decently in society like anybody else," Balenda said.

"I didn't choose to be disabled." 

Keeping more money

The announcement focused on making it easier for people to keep the money they earn before their benefits are clawed back.

Each month, recipients of the Ontario Works social assistance fund will be allowed to earn up to $300, up from the current exemption of $200, MacLeod said.

The previous Liberal regime had promised to raise the monthly threshold to $400, with a 50 per cent exemption on any additional earnings.

The earnings exemption for people on Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) will be $6,000 annually, up from the current rate of $200 per month, which works out to $2,400 a year.

Pawson, who was part of the province's consultations on social assistance reform, said that change may not amount to much.

"That's a good first step in modernizing the treatment of earned income, but I would question if it goes far enough to lift people out of poverty," Pawson said.

He said he is worried the announcement didn't address how income would affect eligibility for health and housing benefits.

Doug Pawson, director of social business and social financing at Causeway Work Centre, said using the federal definition of disability could result in people falling through the cracks. (Ashley Burke/CBC Ottawa)

At the announcement, MacLeod described the reforms as a multi-ministry effort that will be carefully implemented over the next year and a half.

"We're not going to disrupt people in need," she said.

"We're talking about a million people. We wanted to lead with our heart. We just wanted to let people know that these changes would be taking place."

with files from CBC's Brett Throop