In the mid-nineties Mike Harris’ government reduced social assistance rates in Ontario by 22%.There was no economic rationale for this move – just a stupid, mean spirited, ill informed attempt to make social assistance rates unattractive and presumably to make people find jobs that didn’t exist or that they weren’t qualified to do.
In addition, getting on to social assistance was made much more difficult as people were forced to reduce their assets before qualifying. What kind of reductions? Well, today a single person applying for Ontario Works is permitted to have a maximum of $592 in assets in order to qualify so that they can receive a maximum of $7,104 annually.
The issue of inadequacy of social assistance rates must be addressed. At the Hamilton Community Legal Clinic, where I work, we believe that social assistance rates need to have some relation to the actual cost of rent, food and other basic necessities in communities across Ontario.A few years ago the Clinic, with the leadership of staff lawyer Craig Foye, drafted legislation that proposed the idea of setting up an expert panel that each year would recommend evidence-based social assistance rates to the Provincial Government. “An Act to Establish the Ontario Social Assistance Rates Board” (Bill 235) was introduced for first reading as a private member’s bill in the Ontario Legislature by MPP Ted McMeekin on June 4, 2007. Unfortunately, the Legislature was then prorogued the next day in anticipation of a fall election, meaning the Bill was effectively discontinued. The Bill has not yet been reintroduced. Since that time the Clinic and others have continued to advocate with government to implement a process for determining evidence-based social assistance rates. You can read the proposed legislation at http://www.ontla.on.ca/web/bills/bills_detail.do?locale=en&BillID=1681&isCurrent=false&ParlSessionID=
Recently the Clinic prepared a submission to the Commission for the Review of Social Assistance in Ontario submission. In that submission we made the following recommendation:That the Government of Ontario establish an arm’s length body to recommend evidence-based social assistance rates on an annual basis. Those rates should be based on an analysis of the actual costs of rent, a healthy food basket, and other basic necessities in communities across Ontario, and should provide a level of assistance that will allow individuals and families to live with dignity. An example of such a body is the Ontario Social Assistance Rates Board as proposed in the former Bill 235 introduced on June 4, 2007.
Next month the Commissioners are coming back with a report on Options for reforming the system. Hopefully, the rates board will be among the options on the table.
You can keep up to date on this matter by checking the clinic website at www.hamiltonjustice.ca