Welfare reform is the Ford government's next big project
Changes to Ontario's $10B social assistance system to be unveiled next week by Lisa MacLeod
Premier Doug Ford's government is about to reform social assistance in Ontario, raising fears of the kind of sweeping cuts to welfare made the last time the Progressive Conservatives took power in the province.
More than 960,000 men, women and children receive social assistance from the province's two welfare programs, Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support Program, according to the latest provincial figures. The annual social assistance tab, including drug benefits, now tops $10 billion.
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Little wonder that social assistance is squarely on the radar of a government that is looking to cut costs.
The reforms are due to be unveiled next Thursday by Children, Community and Social Services Minister Lisa MacLeod. For now, she is trying to alleviate those fears about what's in store.
"I think people will be pleasantly surprised next week," MacLeod told me in an interview. "Our government is very compassionate and understands that the services we provide are for Ontario's most vulnerable."
MacLeod gave herself 100 days to develop the reforms after announcing in July that the government was cancelling a basic income pilot project launched by the Wynne Liberals during their final months in office.
"The reality is the system needed a retool," she said. "We wanted to take a more streamlined approach rather than the disjointed patchwork that we inherited."
The reforms will focus on "giving people a bit more influence over their own choices rather than getting them trapped in a cycle of poverty," MacLeod said.
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"We want to make sure that those who are employable in the province of Ontario get the support they need to get back on track and get a job, and that those who are unable to work get the supports that they need," she said.
"I think that four years from now there's going to be a lot more people back in the work force and taking control over their own lives."
MacLeod's emphasis on getting people off social assistance and into work has NDP leader Andrea Horwath worried.
"This government is focused on cutting the knees out of everything that costs public money," Horwath said Wednesday at Queen's Park. "We're all concerned that the cuts are going to be drastic and that they're going to be callous."
She said the messages coming from the Ford government harken back to former PC premier Mike Harris, whose government slashed welfare rates and tightened eligibility requirements. Harris said one of his proudest accomplishments was reducing the welfare rolls by more than 400,000 people in just four years.
The reforms Harris introduced meant people could not receive social assistance if they had any savings or owned a car, said Horwath.
"If they go back to those kinds of things, the depth of poverty and the destitution in which people will be living in this province, it'll be horrifying and it'll be shameful," she said.
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"There's a grain of hope that the government will make things better, not worse. But I have to say I very much doubt that's coming."
The government is getting plenty of advice on the reforms:
- The C.D. Howe Institute released a report urging the government to better tailor its job programs to get people off social assistance and reduce the chance that they return to the welfare rolls.
- The Ontario Municipal Social Service Association is suggesting ways the province can cut down on administrative costs and is urging a revamp of employment programs, particularly for people with mental health and addiction issues.
- Nearly 100 groups, led by the Income Security Advocacy Centre (ISAC), want the reforms to follow five principles to ensure they are effective and compassionate.
"This is a complex system that a lot of very vulnerable people rely on," said Mary Marrone, ISAC's director of advocacy and legal services.
"I would hope that this government treads carefully and cautiously in any changes that it makes," Marrone said in an interview.
"If they do it wrong, or if they take away benefits that people are relying on, the current benefit levels are so low and people's lives are so marginal that the results could be catastrophic."
She said the uncertainty surrounding the looming reforms is creating a lot of fear among those who depend on social assistance.
Welfare rates are rising 1.5 per cent this year under the Ford government, a smaller increase than the three per cent hike budgeted by the Wynne government this spring.
During their time in power, the Liberals increased social assistance rates and launched wide-ranging reviews of the system but did not bring in comprehensive reform. Problems with the computer system that manages welfare payments overshadowed reform efforts during Kathleen Wynne's time as premier
MacLeod said her changes will make the social assistance system more sustainable, more user-friendly and better suited to the different needs of different parts of the province.
"That means we're going to have to do things differently than the Liberals did for 15 years."