Submission to Commission to Reform Social Assistance in Ontario
March 1, 2012
There seems to be people that are lost in the grey area where they don’t
qualify for disability but do not possess the physical, social or emotional
skills to be successful in the workplace. Those are the people that are
getting lost and seen as the ‘lifers’ on social assistance. They need long-
term, in depth help which is not available under the current system.
–FROM A SUBMISSION
The questions considered and posed in the Commission’s preliminary reports thus far are
relevant and important. I am a Masters level social worker with thirty-five years practice
experience and would like to contribute some thoughts.
I worked for several years in the social assistance system in Toronto as a case worker,
youth worker (special caseload of teens on GWA due to family circumstances) and as a
family counsellor (responsible for particularly complex cases referred to me by their
regular welfare workers).
The bulk of my career I worked in outpatient hospital mental health with children, families,
and adults. Many of these clients lived with poverty in addition to their other problems
Sadly, there is a poverty industry in Canada that supports a vast bureaucracy of well paid
staff and professionals providing a plethora of income/subsidy programs for those in
financial need. Unfortunately, the costs of administering all of these programs, and paying
so many people to administer them, means there is much less money available to put into
the hands of those these programs are meant to serve. Our elephantine delivery system
inadvertently maintains the underclass in Ontario. Many people working in the system
make a good living, in dire contrast to those it is meant to help.
Too little of the caseworkers time is available for face to face casework with the clients to
determine their overall needs, and facilitating clients in accessing resources (financial,
employment, health, housing, day care).
The various income and subsidy silo programs need to be transformed into one program
(or as few as possible) to reduce duplication and cost, to simplify the system for clients and
workers, and free the money to enhance benefits and payments to those in need.
Certainly, it would be preferable if the system was changed to provide benefits and
assistance for all low-income people (working and not working). The idea of an employer
pool to provide benefits is a very good idea. We need legislation, or incentives, to
require/assist employers hire people full-time at reasonable wages with benefits. Far too
many employers, especially in the retail sector, keep labour costs low by using part-time
people, and providing no benefits. From a strictly capitalistic viewpoint this is not
surprising, but in fact such practices maintain working people in poverty, and effectively
download current and future social costs to the Canadian public.
Clients receiving assistance, particularly sole-support mothers who qualify for post-
secondary education should be allowed to pursue studies while getting assistance and
OSAP. This would be a minority of the overall population but a significant one with the
most likelihood of becoming higher income earners, and tax payers in the future. Not
supporting these individuals to complete up-grading and pursue post-secondary education
is penny wise and pound foolish.
There needs to be more emphasis on pre-employment readiness for Ontario Works clients
to equip them with literacy, interpersonal and job search skills. These programs need to be
designed locally in partnership with business. I developed and ran such a program in
Etobicoke for clients who had been on welfare for long periods of time, or special needs
individuals. We had employers volunteer to carry out practice interviews with the
participants after two weeks of life skill training/job search and job application guidance
and support for self-esteem and hopefulness. Some of these employers would hire
individuals with problematic work histories when I remained available as a support system
for a period of time.
Many Ontario Works clients and ODSP clients face health, mental health, or other obstacles
employment in an increasingly competitive economy. It is critical that comprehensive
needs assessment/case management be available particularly with those who revolve in
and out of the system. Case workers with paperwork and responsibility for huge caseloads
up to 120 cannot possibly carry out proper casework.
Many client’s Ontario Works and ODSP will only be able to work part-time. They need to be
allowed to retain much more of income earned, as well as continue to receive drug/dental
benefits if not otherwise available to them. Transit passes are also a necessity for many
clients to allow them to access employment, medical treatment and social interaction.
The income maintenance system in the past has operated largely with what I call a “light-
switch model” where the client is either on the system, or off. A continuum of assistance
that can span even two years or more while clients become independent in a sustainable
way is needed.
Having access to case management during this transition period is critical.
With regard to mental health issues, the question of whether treatment can, or ought to be
required, of recipients of assistance is challenging. On the one hand, the legislation requires
assistance be provided to those in need and I certainly agree with this. However, I had
many welfare clients that were on assistance literally for years with their family doctor
signing medical forms for them every six months to qualify them for continued benefits,
with requirements on their behalf around treatment or rehabilitation.
Often, these clients were floridly psychotic, isolated and suffering. We see many such
people wandering the streets of Toronto. I do think some way of balancing ones freedom to
refuse treatment along with the public’s right to insist that one is taking steps toward
wellness and independence is compassionate, reasonable and makes commonsense. I
found it frustrating having to continue giving assistance to such individuals when it was
clear providing money without conditions was in many respects only enabling them,
trapping them in their suffering and a terrible way of life, and maintaining the poverty
industry. I realize this is a difficult issue to reconcile, but it must be faced.
The high cost of housing has always absorbed the bulk of the money provided to clients on
assistance. The result is all too often that recipients truly have no money for food or
transportation, clothing and are living in sub-standard rooming houses, and basements. In
many cases, most of the assistance goes to landlords. Hence, we have the developed the
institution of food banks and effectively place people in impossible situations that leave
little alternative but finding ways to cheat the system to survive. Providing food cards as
part of the assistance package would keep that money protected from landlords. Of course,
the cost of housing in the GTA would be even more prohibitive.
Some income benchmark must be determined that will allow people to live and participate
in society, not just survive.
This amount needs to take into realistic account where a person lives and what the actual
costs of housing, food and transportation are in their area.
A single delivery program for welfare and disability would eliminate much of the need for
the current plethora of income programs and subsidies. It would free up funds from the
current elephantine administration and surveillance systems that could be re-directed
towards payment enhancement, and effective case management assistance to these
Your task is complex and challenging and I wish you the best. Let me know if might be
helpful with the commissions work. I am retired but work in private practice in the GTA.
Malcolm Watts MSW RSW U of T 1978