Photo: Kieran Delamont.
by Kieran Delamont
ACORN members across the province are gathering on the second Thursday of every month to protest and demand the government increase social assistance rates and abandon plans to adopt stricter federal definitions of disability.
“We don’t have a wealth problem in Ontario, we have a wealth distribution problem.”
Per the government’s report, this would have been achieved by “simplifying the rate structure, reducing administration, cutting unnecessary rules, and providing greater opportunities to achieve better employment outcomes for social assistance recipients, resulting in estimated annual savings of over $1 billion at maturity.”
The government was forced to walk back their proposed changes in the fall, after documents leaked to The Toronto Star showed civil servants warning the government that people would probably start dying if all these changes were pushed through. More alarming might be the anxiety of those working on the frontlines of poverty, who warn (without a hint of hyperbole in their voices) that going through with changes as substantive as last year’s proposal would lead to an uptick in suicides, drug overdoses, and general hopelessness.
There’s a general sense of anxiety among those who depend on the system that the Ford government will try to introduce these, or similar, cuts to ODSP again in the upcoming budget. “Social assistance is already at poverty levels, and the bureaucracy creates a disincentive for people to work — who are able to work — keeping us in poverty,” said ACORN’s Blaine Cameron, an ODSP recipient.
As it stands now, the system is woefully and chronically underfunded, leaving many recipients unable to cover their bills. A single person is given a basic payment of $497 for shelter, but because that can’t really rent anyone anything in Ottawa (or anywhere, really), many people have to dip into the money they get for what the bureaucracy calls “basic needs” — another mostly ungenerous payout of between six and thirteen hundred dollars.
For most, that means dipping into the food budget, or the car payments, or the bus pass, cell phone, internet and so on, just to make rent. Sometimes (actually a lot of times) rent takes up basically all that money, too.
Meanwhile, if someone tries to work a little bit to cover the costs, they’re free to keep the first $200, and everything after that is taxed at 50 per cent — nearly four times the provincial tax rate on Ontario’s highest earners. The government will then give $100 of that back as a reward for working that month (a thank you to someone who just forked over around half their income?).
The proposed changes would have seen recipients able to keep up to $6,000 annually, but anything further would be taxed at 75 per cent. So, to summarize, Ontario will tax impoverished people with disabilities at rates it wouldn’t dream of for the obscenely wealthy.
“Cutting ODSP and pensioners, the poorest people in our society, it’s almost like population control, that agenda,” says Kelly Florence, a harm reduction worker here in Ottawa. “ODSP cuts when [Ford] is making so much money a year, living lavish while people, who are out there trying to help other people, can’t get by.”
So you can understand why those who rely on this system to not die get very, very worried about the giant austerity hammer hanging over it.
It’s true that the planned cuts, first proposed in June and later cancelled in October, are officially off the table (for now). Yet a scathing auditor general’s report released in December — which highlighted ballooning costs, 50 per cent increase in the number of recipients and poor oversight within Ontario’s disability support programs — has led to a concern among recipients that the Ford government now has all the evidence it needs to justify the cuts this time.
The protests come as the government is holding consultations on how to reform its anti-poverty strategy, as well as pre-budget consultations ahead of the budget in March. There is a sense of anxiety among recipients that social assistance programs are once again in the government’s crosshairs and could be subject to deep cuts.
After all, in November 2018, then-social services minister Lisa MacLeod announced the Conservative’s desire to see ODSP definitions brought in line with federal pension definitions. These definitions set a higher threshold for receiving disability than the ones currently used by ODSP. This could make it more difficult for people with episodic disabilities and mental illnesses to get financial support.
More specifically, federal definitions of disability within the Canada Pension Plan limit eligibility those who both can’t work now, and will likely never be able to. (In 2018, MacLeod stated that there would be grandfathering clauses, meaning the changes would primarily affect those who are not yet receiving ODSP.)
No timeline was ever laid out for the changes being proposed to limit ODSP eligibility, and it was not clear whether those changes were also cancelled when the Ford government walked back the cuts. Both the City of Ottawa and the City of Toronto passed resolutions last month urging the government not to follow through with these changes. In the absence of clarity, recipients are operating as if the definitions are still set to change.
The provincial government is still hedging. “We are listening and exploring the best ways to bring about positive outcomes for Ontarians in need, so we are taking the time to get this right,” social services minister Todd Smith wrote in a November 2019 letter to the coalition Defend Disability, who were calling on the government to maintain existing eligibility. “Details are still to be determined and we will provide more information as decisions are made.”
The government has justified their austerity with platitudes about focusing on “ability, not disability” and defining poverty largely as merely a lack of employment opportunities. Officially, the government has not given any concrete indication of what it plans to do with social assistance, saying only that they have received and are considering the auditor general’s report.
If the government still believes this interpretation of poverty and disability and how best to provide support (and there’s no reason to believe this has changed), the upcoming budget and a highly critical auditor general’s report have given them an opportunity, and plenty of ammunition, to enact drastic social assistance reform.
“They talked about changing the definition of disability, but they haven’t done anything yet,” says Ottawa Centre MPP Joel Harden, the NDP’s critic for accessibility and persons with disabilities. “But here’s the thing, when these guys talk about everything it sends a chill through the entire province. They talked about interfering in Toronto’s election, they did it. They talked about buck a beer and changing alcohol laws, they do it.”
“People have reason to believe that these guys are real ideologues, and they will do these things,” Harden concluded.
For those who depend on that system to survive, it’s a scary prospect. That the government walked many of them up to the brink last year, only to pull back, was bad enough. Many of them feel they’re being walked back that way now, totally in the dark.
Right now, it’s a bit of a guessing game for ODSP recipients. This year’s budget lines up with a scheduled review of anti-poverty programs (the government undertakes these every five years). This is a pretty good indicator that they are intending to introduce some kinds of change to social assistance. What that something is, however, is still up in the air.
Advocates are calling on the government to maintain the current definition of disability, at very least, in order to avoid erecting more barriers to accessing ODSP. They’d also like to see rates rise. Curiously, they look to Alberta for inspiration — social assistance rates were raised there under Premier Rachel Notley. A single person there is eligible for nearly $1,700 every month.
“What we should be putting on the table is a universal basic income that eliminates poverty in this country,” says Harden. “We’re rich enough. We have more than enough money. We don’t have a wealth problem in Ontario, we have a wealth distribution problem.”
Other changes, too, have chipped away at people on the margins. The government reversed a planned minimum wage hike and replaced it with a tax credit, which on balance resulted in less money. “That [hike] would’ve cost the government nothing,” Harden says. “Nothing!”
Politically, Harden is urging people to get involved in pre-budget consultations the government is conducting. The NDP are bracing for cuts in the upcoming budget in March, particularly around changing definitions. The hope, for the opposition at least, is to see more sustained pressure and outcry from the public — something that Harden points out has worked in the past with this government.
“We’ve got two by-elections going on in this city, one in Vanier and one in Orleans,” says Harden, going into NDP campaign mode. “Don’t vote for these people!”