Ontario needs to adopt an evidence-based system for determining social assistance rates.
By Craig Foye
Published September 28, 2007
Could you feed your family on $4.10 a day?
Hundreds of families in Hamilton are expected to do just that. A single parent (with one child under 13) who is trying to subsist on the Government of Ontario's Ontario Works Program may face this cruel and impossible situation every day.
This family would also need to buy clothes, cleaning supplies, hygiene products, and many other things within that very limited budget.
This human crisis is a direct result of a social assistance system in Ontario that does not base rates on the costs of basic necessities in Ontario communities. The chart below outlines the budgetary constraints of a single parent with one child who are in receipt of Ontario Works benefits.
Although social assistance rates were increased by two percent in last spring's provincial budget, current social assistance rates - for both Ontario Works (general welfare) and the Ontario Disability Support Program remain arbitrary numbers - with no relation to the actual costs of goods in the various communities across Ontario.
This untenable situation results in many individuals and families being unable to afford the high cost of rent and utilities. Families are accessing emergency food services in numbers not seen since the Great Depression.
Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support Program are vital. Many individuals and families in our communities will always need to access them, whether for a short time or for longer periods. It is crucial that those who require assistance are able to subsist.
The alternative is that community members fall behind on their 'bare bones' budget every month, resulting in problems such as hunger, poor health, and rampant economic evictions.
|Before Tax Monthly Benefits|
|Basic Needs Allowance||$470.00|
|Child Tax Benefit||$106.92|
|Ontario Child Benefit||$20.83|
|Before Tax Monthly Expenses|
|Avg Rent (2bd)||$779.00|
|Avg Hydro Costs||$118.96|
|Basic Phone Service||$29.95|
|Adult Bus Pass||$71.00|
|Child Bus Pass||$56.00|
|Daily Amount for food and all other expenses: $4.10|
This current situation portends dire consequences for the future of our communities as many children are currently growing up in households living on below subsistence levels of income due to inadequate and arbitrary social assistance rates.
Over 30 years ago, the Government of Ontario based social assistance rates on the Toronto Social Planning Council's Guide to Family Budgeting. Since then, we have seen rates that are no longer based on the actual cost of living.
The problem reached critical levels after "welfare" rates were slashed by 21.6 percent overnight in 1995. Since that time, the rates have lost a further 40 percent of their buying power. The United Nations committee on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights has chastised Canada - several times - for its failure to provide an adequate standard of living to those individuals and families living on government assistance.
Hamilton's Community Legal Clinics core services include assisting and representing clients in receipt, or attempting to access social assistance. We see firsthand, every single day, the dire financial situation many Hamiltonians face - being unable to afford rent, food, energy costs, proper shoes, even toothpaste or shampoo.
After years of unsuccessfully advocating the provincial government for a significant increase in social assistance rates to reflect the actual cost of subsisting, the legal clinics tried a new approach.
With the assistance of a law student of Osgoode Hall, we went back to the future and pulled a recommendation from a report on social assistance reform from 1988. That recommendation suggested creating an 'evidence-based' system for determining social assistance rates.
It made a lot sense and presented a non-political way of setting social assistance rates. We took the initiative to draft a piece of legislation to propose the creation of a body called 'the Ontario Social Assistance Rates Board'.
The Ontario Social Assistance Rates Board would recommend social assistance rates on an annual basis. The Board would make recommendations on setting social assistance rates based on a real life look at what it actually costs to find and keep a place to live and buy basic necessities in Ontario communities.
In May a letter was sent to all local MPPs asking that they support and if possible introduce the draft legislation as a Private Member's Bill.
On June 4, 2007, Ted McMeekin MPP for Ancaster, Dundas, Flamborough, Aldershot introduced Bill 235 in the Ontario Legislature. Bill 235 would have created the Ontario Social Assistance Rates Board.
Bill 235 was unanimously endorsed by Hamilton City Council. Unfortunately, the bill died on the order paper when the Legislature broke for summer recess and the current election.
We will continue to push for the creation of the Social Assistance Rates Board and will be actively seeking support from local MPPs after the election to have the bill re-introduced.
The provincial government should establish an independent committee to determine just and rational criteria by which social assistance rates should be set. E.g. rates should provided for the cost of meeting the Nutritious Food Basket, and the shelter allowance should reflect average local rents as defined by CMHC. Benefits should be permanently indexed to inflation as are federal income benefits.
-- "A Poverty Reduction Strategy for Ontario", Ontario Campaign 2000 Discussion Paper, July 2007
The Ministry of Community, Family & Children's Services and the Ontario Works Program should assess the adequacy of all social assistance rates. Allowances for housing and basic needs should be based on actual cost within a particular community or region. In developing the allowance, data about the nutritional food basket prepared annually by local health units and the average rent data prepared by Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation should be considered.
-- Recommendation #4 of the Coroner's Jury Inquest into the Death of Kimberly Ann Rogers December 19, 2002
The rate-setting process should be established in legislation, along with a requirement for legislative review of proposed changes. The legislation should require, at a minimum, yearly indexation or rates on the basis of the CPI. The statute should require a review of the market basket definition and existing rates every five years by an external committee that reports to a standing committee of the legislature.
-- Recommendation # 49
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