Ontario's social assistance reforms look like 'window dressing,' anti-poverty activist says

Some activists and social assistance recipients are questioning whether the Ford government's proposed reforms will help reduce poverty in the province.

Government says reforms will help reduce poverty, but some activists and recipients are skeptical

Trish Huculak (right) and her daughter Alicia, are recipients of Ontario's social assistance program who are worried about the latest changes by the Ontario PC government. (Gary Morton/CBC News)

As the finer details of the Ford government's updates to Ontario's social assistance program are still being parsed, some social assistance recipients and advocates are reacting to the changes with skepticism. 

"I haven't heard anything from the government addressing adequacy ... It sounds like good window dressing at this point," said Diane Dyson, a public policy activist based in Toronto. 

The Ontario Progressive Conservative government has said the changes will not be immediate, instead rolling out over the next two years. Among those tweaks — allowing recipients who are employed to keep more of their earnings. There will also be a changing definition of who qualifies for disability insurance.

"[The current program] left people dependent on government and trapped in a cycle of poverty," Children, Community and Social Services Minister Lisa MacLeod said Thursday as she unveiled the government's proposals. 

Diane Dyson, public policy activist, calls the latest changes in social assistance programs "good window dressing" by the provincial government. (CBC News Network)

But Dyson is far from convinced that the PCs have found the answer to help alleviate poverty, citing a lack of details in the initial announcement. 

'A paler version'

"The Conservative government has come out with a paler version of what [the Liberals] were doing," Dyson said. 

"We were hoping to see hikes that would begin to address adequacy but people are still going to be falling far behind."

Under the new plan, MacLeod said recipients of the Ontario Works social assistance fund will be allowed to earn up to $300; a bump up from the current exemption of $200.

The previous Liberal government had promised to raise the monthly threshold to $400. 

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

According to Trish Huculak, a recipient of social assistance who lives in Scarborough, the uptick by the Ontario PCs will not make a real difference on paycheques.

"People are going to go, 'Right on,' that [the provincial government] have added an extra $100. But when we do the math, it's not going to end up that," she said. 

Huculak supports her daughter on a single income, working with Work for Change, a charitable organization, and the United Way. She says the $100 will not make a discernible difference given different living expenses like rent. 

"[Recipients] are going to end up with what they had before. It's not going to help them, it's going to keep them impoverished."

New definition of 'disability' assistance

The Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) also takes issue with the proposed changes, specifically regarding changes to the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) and who can claim its benefits. 

MacLeod said there will be an earnings exemption for recipients of the program up to $6,000 annually. 

The province will be changing its definition of who can apply under disability assistance to align with a federal definition. 

"They've made social assistance even more restrictive with the changes and reforms they've announced," said Yogi Acharaya, a representative from OCAP. 

Yogi Acharya with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty believes any changes to the definition of who receives disability assistance will be too limiting. (CBC News)

Acharaya said despite the province's promises to "grandfather" any recipients who've already qualified for disability, OCAP believes many will be left out. 

"Presumably [the Ontario PCs] are referring to the CPP disability definition or perhaps a definition that's used for the disability tax credits — both of which are more restrictive than the Ontario definition of disability," Acharaya said. 

MacLeod did not detail whether or not there would be more or fewer recipients of disability assistance under the new guidelines. 

The Tories additionally said they were cutting a planned three per cent increase in social assistance to 1.5 per cent.