In November 2017, the provincial government released “Income Security: A Roadmap for Change”, written by three groups that were appointed by the Minister of Community and Social Services (MCSS) in 2016 to give advice on how to reform Ontario’s income security system.
The Roadmap made some important recommendations, including significantly increasing social assistance rates, making the system less punitive, and implementing an Ontario Housing Benefit.
The 2018 Ontario Budget provides an opportunity to immediately invest in two recommendations proposed by the Roadmap:
- Implement a Standard Flat Rate, collapsing the Basic Needs Allowance and Shelter Allowance portions of social assistance into one amount;
- Setting this Standard Flat Rate to $794 per month for Ontario Works and $1,209 for Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP).
While greater investments will still need to be made to bring people out of poverty, these will be crucial steps that have the power to transform the system and can have an impact on people struggling with hunger in Toronto.
The Standard Flat Rate
In Daily Bread’s 2016 Who’s Hungry report we profiled Tim, a food bank client and volunteer who had lost his job after 30 years and was homeless. Tim’s health was deteriorating, and his condition was exacerbated from having to sleep outdoors. Because he couldn’t work and had no other income options he was able to access Ontario Works but was in a catch-22: because he was homeless, he was not entitled to receive the Shelter Allowance, only the Basic Needs Allowance – a little over $300 a month. Because of this bureaucratic separation between the Basic Needs and Shelter portions of Ontario Works, Tim was receiving only half of an already low level of income support, creating another barrier to his escaping homelessness.
Tim’s situation reveals one of many structural flaws of the present social assistance system, but the 2018 Ontario Budget presents an opportunity to correct this flaw: implementing a Standard Flat Rate, which would collapse the Basic Needs and Shelter allowances into one amount. This change would ensure that everyone receiving social assistance would have the same level of support, regardless of whether they are homeless, renting or owning, or live in rent-geared-to-income housing.
This change would also help accommodate various living arrangements people have to make in today’s challenging rental market in order to maintain housing, such as sharing accommodation with others. The present system is designed to monitor and regulate people’s living situation by basing rates on shelter costs, and where and with whom you live. This creates further hardship and barriers to those receiving assistance, as well as adding to the administrative burden of the system and the front line workers trying to help individuals in need.
Increasing social assistance rates and developing a Minimum Income Standard
We know that the main driver of the need for food banks in Toronto is lack of income: this is in large part due to the extremely low levels of income provided by provincial social assistance.
The majority of clients accessing food banks in Toronto receive one of two provincial social assistance programs as their main source of income. According to Daily Bread’s most recent Who’s Hungry survey, 64% rely on either Ontario Works or ODSP as their main source of income.
As the labour market continues its shift from full-time employment to part-time employment, greater numbers of people out of work are forced to rely on provincial social assistance, and those with a disability are less likely to be able to access employer-triggered disability income programs.
Despite being a crucial source of income support for almost a million Ontarians, the levels of income have fallen so far behind inflation there would need to be a 41% increase in OW payments, and a 23% increase in ODSP payments, for them to be equivalent to what they were worth in 1993.
In order to address this crucial gap in income adequacy, the Roadmap proposes that rates be immediately increased by 10% for a single person receiving Ontario Works and 5% increase for those on ODSP. This increase would bring amounts to $794 and $1,209 respectively.
While the working group chose an amount that the government could realistically implement, it was recommended that the government move as quickly as possible to move those in deepest poverty towards an adequate level of income that more accurately reflects actual living costs.
While the Roadmap proposes this initially be done through direct increases to social assistance rates, the report states that the goal should be to bring every household in the province to a “Minimum Income Standard” through a combination of social assistance and other income supports by 2027-2028.
The defined Minimum Income Standard would initially be set at the same level as the official Low-Income Measure used by the province’s Poverty Reduction Strategy (LIM-50) plus an additional 30% added for persons with a disability.
To reach this minimum standard would require supports that go beyond increases to provincial social assistance rates, and be part of a “building block” approach that combines municipal, provincial and federal cash benefits as well as housing supports and core health benefits (such as prescription drug coverage). This could also include a portable housing benefit, proposed by the Roadmap as a universal, income-tested benefit to provide direct financial assistance to help with high rental costs.
The Roadmap for Change provides achievable targets and tactics that will effect real change in the lives of people struggling with hunger and poverty in Ontario.
The Ontario Budget 2018 is a chance to take a solid step in the right direction and reach those targets.
Let’s get moving.