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.
The 2016 Ontario budget took bold steps to transform an outdated income security system.
In our 2016 pre-budget consultation, we asked for changes that would help more low income Ontarians live in good health and dignity, as well as move toward a modern income security system that supports people’s transitions to employment and improve their income security. These were recommendations that were reiterated from our 2015 submission, where we outlined 5 key ideas from the final report of the Commission for the Review of Social Assistance in Ontario, Brighter Prospects, which we wanted to see implemented.
In their latest budget, the province has set out commitments to address three of those ideas. They include the $100 total increase to Ontario Works rates for single adults without children; a commitment to reduce (to 100 per cent) the claw back rate on child support payments for households receiving social assistance; and laying the groundwork for the introduction of housing benefit for low income people to better afford their housing.
|Daily Bread Recommendation
||2016 Ontario Budget
|• Increasing the social assistance rates, in particular bringing the Ontario Works rate for single person households to the full $100 increase recommended by the commission.
||• Provided a further top-up to singles without children receiving Ontario Works — bringing their total increase to $25 per month more than last year, and $100 more per month than they received in 2012.
|• Setting a withdrawal rate for child support payments based on a rationale and empirical evidence, and less than the dollar for dollar clawback that exists currently.
||• A commitment to introduce changes to social assistance rules so that families receiving social assistance who receive child support payments can benefit from more of this income.
|• A commitment to examine and design a Housing Benefit to help all low income tenants in Ontario better afford their housing.
||• A commitment to the development of a framework for a portable housing benefit, and transformation of social and supportive housing programs.
• $2.4 million in 2016–17 to pilot a new portable housing benefit that would offer more options for those fleeing domestic violence, benefiting approximately 500 households.
In addition to these commitments, the province has also committed to Basic Income pilot project.
A “Basic Income” is an income which would provide households with enough money that they wouldn’t have to live in poverty. The amount of income a household receives would either replace or complement other forms of income they might be receiving, such as child tax benefits or social assistance, in order to bring them above a pre-determined “poverty line”.
Many see the idea of a basic income as one that replaces the outdated form of provincial social assistance which provides only very low levels of income, as well as has restrictive rules which create barriers to escaping poverty. In the 2016 budget, the province seeks to pilot a project which would address these issues, including providing improved and more seamless financial support for those making the transition from welfare to work.
We’re hopeful that the results of this pilot project will provide the evidence needed to create further, large scale changes to the income security support system in Ontario.
Other important steps that still need to be taken
In the meantime, the Province should continue to increase the liquid assets allowable for those on social assistance. Low asset limits can undermine financial resiliency and jeopardizes retirement savings, which makes it more difficult to escape poverty and may cost the government more in the long term. Currently, the allowable level of liquid assets is $2,500 for single people receiving Ontario Works and $5,000 for those on the Ontario Disability Support Program. While the allowable assets for those receiving Ontario Works have increased significantly in the last few years, Ontario should continue to increase asset levels for both programs in the near future.
Additionally, there needs to be work to replace rent scales in Rent Geared to Income (RGI) housing with the 30 per cent of income RGI calculation outlined in the Brighter Prospects report, which will help prevent the sudden spike in rent for tenants receiving social assistance who are able to earn added income from employment.
In order to make a real impact in helping to reduce hunger for our vulnerable residents, strong investments have to be made in it so that people can better afford to purchase their own food. In addition, new approaches to coordination and planning have to take into account the extensive network of community-based food organizations that already exist.
On November 4, 2015, Council unanimously approved TO Prosperity, Toronto’s first Poverty Reduction Strategy which recommended actions to create good jobs, improved transit, housing, childcare and other services. Given that all three levels of government are now committed to poverty reduction, the stars have aligned and there is potential to make a large dent in the growing poverty in our City.
In a letter signed by leaders from over 50 civic organizations including Daily Bread Food Bank, and endorsed by the Toronto Region Board of Trade, groups urged Mayor John Tory and members of Toronto City Council to move on 49 recommendations that will advance the city’s Poverty Reduction Strategy.
The recommendations in this letter came from hundreds of individuals and community groups who took part in consultations through the Commitment 2 Community coalition. Their input in these consultations was guided from seeing or experiencing first-hand the impact of poverty. While the majority of these recommendations would require no monetary investment in 2016, the City’s proposed $6 million falls far short of the $75 million required to implement the remaining third of the recommendations.
It is important that the 2016 Budget make a significant down payment toward reducing poverty in our City. Through a combination of new approaches, careful planning and strong investment, the City has potential to both improve the quality of life for its vulnerable citizens, and the ability for front line agencies such as food banks to better address hunger in our communities.
Helping Toronto residents afford food
“I’ve been waiting for housing for 5 years and they tell me it’s another 10 year wait. All the money I get goes to rent.” Respondent from Who’s Hungry survey
Daily Bread’s latest Who’s Hungry report shows that there were nearly 900,000 visits to Toronto food banks in the last year alone, with a 45 per cent increase in the inner suburbs since 2008. On average food bank clients are spending 71 per cent of their income on rent, and access help for an average of two years, whereas a few years ago it was only one year. Even though a main driving force of food bank use is due to social assistance policy at the Provincial level, many day to day struggles for clients intersect with other issues that affect their ability to afford food, including high housing, child care, and transit costs. These are areas that the city can have an impact on through some of these recommendations from the coalition, which would result in concrete outcomes that could reduce the need for food banks for clients of Daily Bread member agencies. They include: making rents affordable for 7,000 households; providing access to subsidized childcare to 1,500 children in families that are struggling to afford childcare; and ensuring stable jobs and decent wages for workers delivering city services.
Helping food programs access suitable space
“We’re in a vulnerable neighbourhood, but don’t have access to a suitable space that’s affordable – we’re a breath away from having to close.” Helena Houldcroft, Flemingdon Park Food Bank
Daily Bread Food Bank is a non-profit organization that provides food and support to almost 200 food programs and 136 member agencies across Toronto. There are many Daily Bread Food Bank member agencies operating in almost every ward throughout the city. The majority of our member agencies run their food programs in local churches and community centres. Dedicated staff and volunteers in these agencies pick up, stock, and distribute food to people in their community in addition to providing other services to support people on low incomes.
While the goodwill and workforce to distribute food to those that are hungry are bountiful, the available space to run these programs are not. Available space to operate food programs in the inner suburbs is sparse, and those that are available are bursting at the seams to accommodate the 45 per cent increase in visits since 2008. The spaces that already exist, especially those in the city core, are at risk of being lost or are already disappearing due to rising rents, redevelopment, and relocation. Some examples include:
- A food bank in Flemingdon Park, struggling to pay its rent, having to operate out of an inaccessible basement despite being located in an area with high levels of poverty;
- A pre-natal program serving pregnant mothers and infants in Parkdale that can only serve a fraction of the number of families it could serve previously due to being relocated to a much smaller space;
- A food bank in east Toronto being closed due to high rent.
Despite being an essential source of food for tens of thousands of Torontonians, Daily Bread and food programs operate largely outside of government and do not receive government funding. On its own, Daily Bread moves about $22 million worth of food on a budget of about $7 million, relying primarily on private donations from individuals and corporations. The impact of this money could be far greater if the City could assist in increasing the availability of space, either through its own properties, or helping to make connections with those that have access to space. This would enable the City to play an essential role in helping to reduce hunger, and do so at little, if any, cost. A key recommendation from the coalition – ensure programs have access to schools and other facilities – requires no cost, but would need strategic coordination and planning, and consultation with communities in need.
Providing support for small infrastructure
“If you don’t have proper storage it doesn’t matter how much food you have.” Food Bank Coordinator
Where many local food banks face serious financial constraints is the ability to afford the infrastructure requirements necessary to run food programs that meet the needs of local communities. As one participant in Daily Bread’s consultation mentioned, if you don’t have proper storage facilities, it doesn’t matter how much food you have. In addition to the lack of space mentioned previously, many food programs have difficulty affording and repairing the large commercial freezers that are necessary for storing perishable food. Another recommendation from the coalition asked for “3 to 5 more staff to support the development of community food hubs and funds for small infrastructure.” Support of the infrastructure that already exists in Toronto could include that a granting process be made available for food programs which could provide the capital and core funding for essential equipment like large freezers, and other infrastructure improvements.
A Vision of Ending Hunger in our City
The City of Toronto has produced a bold strategy to reduce poverty in our City. In order to make a real impact in helping to reduce hunger for our vulnerable residents, strong investments have to be made in it so that people can better afford to purchase their own food. In addition, new approaches to coordination and planning have to take into account the extensive network of community-based food organizations that already exist. Daily Bread, and its vast agency network that helps feed Toronto, work to provide nutritious food for thousands of people who cannot afford it. With a strong financial commitment to the Poverty Reduction Strategy from the City, we can make a real difference in ending poverty and hunger in our communities.