As the labour market becomes more precarious and with fewer employment-triggered disability benefits available, more people in Ontario need to access provincial social assistance. By increasing asset limits to social assistance, the 2017 Ontario Budget has made an essential step in reforming the system by significantly reducing restrictions to access the program.
Some background to this change: the allowable asset levels in Ontario’s two social assistance programs – Ontario Works (OW) and Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) – have been very low since their implantation in the 1990’s. For instance, until last year a single person receiving OW could only have the equivalent to one months’ social assistance payment in assets. Why is restricting the amount of assets a bad idea? It has been argued that low asset levels undermine financial resiliency, work against the goal of returning a recipient to the workforce quickly, and jeopardize savings for retirement – all of which may cost governments more in the long term.
With this budget the provincial budget took a large step: liquid asset limits for single people receiving Ontario Works was increased to $10,000 from $2,500, and to $15,000 for couples from $5,000.
For those receiving ODSP, asset limits are being increased to $40,000 from $5,000 for single individuals, and to $50,000 for couples from $7,500.
Other commitments made in the provincial budget include:
- Increasing the income exemption for cash gifts for those receiving social assistance from $6,000 to $10,000;
- Increasing social assistance payments across the board by 2 per cent;
- Investing $30 million over the next three years in the Survivors of Domestic Violence Portable Housing Benefit Pilot, which will eventually support 3,000 people;
- $90 million to the Community Homelessness Prevention Initiatives;
- The addition of 24,000 licenced child care spaces, including 16,000 that will be subsidized;
- Universal prescription drug coverage to all children and youth 24 and under.
The province has also committed to a Supermarket Recovery Pilot Program, which will provide a one-time investment of $600,000 to make grants available to food banks and food rescue organizations to expand their capacity to transport and store surplus fresh and perishable food. This pilot was one of the top three ideas selected by the public for funding though the Budget Talks platform.
At Daily Bread, we are particularly pleased to see that many of our key recommendations to the province last year are moving forward in the 2017 budget.
These initiatives, along with the previously announced Basic Income Pilot that will begin in the summer in Hamilton, Lindsay and Thunder Bay, will continue the momentum to enable the further, large scale changes to the income security system in Ontario that can help reduce poverty and hunger in our communities.
Food banks and meal programs from across Toronto come together for workshops on disability issues
Daily Bread Food Bank, North York Harvest Food Bank (NYHFB) and Second Harvest provide food for hundreds of programs across Toronto. Together, they also jointly organize a free full-day training event for the staff and volunteers that coordinate these food programs.
“This was my first Joint Agency Training Workshop, and it was wonderful to see so many agency staff and volunteers connecting with like-minded people from across the city,” said NYHFB’s Rowena Power, one of the co-organizers. “So often we work in isolation, so it’s really positive to feel like we are all part of something bigger.”
Lucky number 13
The 13th Joint Agency Training Workshop focused on disability issues, providing workshops in key areas such as changes to the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP), mental health awareness and food program accessibility for those with both invisible and visible disabilities. Over 64 agencies came together to share knowledge and learn more about an issue that affects many of those coming to food banks and meal programs. Twenty-eight per cent of people coming to a food bank are on ODSP, and 49 per cent of food bank clients have a disability.
The cost of living with a disability
Most people can’t live on ODSP alone – that’s why they are coming to food banks. A final panel discussion looked at this issue in depth: what political and policy trends are affecting people on ODSP, as well as those living with a disability or physical illness? What can agencies do to help?
John Stapleton, a Daily Bread board member who is part of Open Policy Ontario, spoke about how challenging a situation it can be, with nine different disability benefits possible. ODSP can be an extremely isolating program, with the entire process wrapped up in red tape. What can agencies do to help?
Helping people find their voice
Because it’s so isolating, many people coming to a food bank or meal program find that their local food program often becomes so much more than just a place where they can access food. A food bank client from a recent survey said that her local food bank was also “her friends, her community, her restaurant and her library.” Building on that community that is already there, Stapleton suggested that helping people find their own voice is one of the biggest ways agencies can help.
I’m not the only one
Carolyn Bierma, one of the workshop organizers from Daily Bread, agrees that paving the way for people to self-advocate is valuable.
“Some people are natural-born advocates. But the reality for many others is that poverty grinds down that part of their self-worth and mental health until they have nothing left,” said Carolyn. “Many clients have expressed how much of a challenge it was for them to get to that place where you realize you’re not the only one struggling, and you start to come out of that isolation and learn some self-compassion…it is a struggle to realize ‘Hey, I’m in this situation NOT because there is something fundamentally wrong with me but because there is something fundamentally wrong with the system; it doesn’t help people the way it’s supposed to.’