Struggling to Survive:
Ontario Works Recipients Talk About Life on Welfare
Ernie Lightman, Andrew Mitchell and Dean Herd
Social Assistance in the New Economy (SANE)
University of Toronto
Faculty of Social Work
Working Report #1
For more information on the SANE project please visit
www.utoronto.ca/facsocwk/sane or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Table of Contents
Real People; Real Lives ...................................................................................................................3
Study Background and Purpose .......................................................................................................7
Welfare Lives ...................................................................................................................................9
Shelter Allowance ..........................................................................................................................13
Basic Needs Allowance..................................................................................................................17
Concluding Remarks ......................................................................................................................20
Appendix 1: Methodology .............................................................................................................22
Appendix 2: The Panel in Context .................................................................................................24
Real People; Real Lives
You’re looked down upon. If somebody knows that you’re on assistance, you’re automatically work-
avoiding, shiftless, lazy. Fill in your own “blank.” It’s like you’re the worst person on Earth. Some people
may do that, fine. I want to better myself and get on with my life. Be a good example for my kid (R1#45).
There are many myths about people on welfare, the reasons why they end up on assistance and
how hard they try to leave. In these worlds of stereotype, welfare recipients are unmarried
teenage mums with too many kids. Or young, single employable males. Or immigrants and
racialized minorities. Recipients end up on assistance because they are lazy. They watch
television all day, instead of looking for work. They are irresponsible and squander the generous
payments they receive. They are unskilled, uneducated and they don’t want to work. Such beliefs
about people on welfare are both powerful and persistent: they permeate every section of society
from the politicians --- who armed with nameless and faceless anecdotes castigate all welfare
recipients to justify imposing punitive programme requirements and rates --- to welfare recipients
themselves --- who occasionally have their own stories about people who are “sitting there just
collecting cheques” (R1#39) and who blame their own meagre allowance on those who ‘milk the
system.’ Embedded within these different accounts is the notion that the people being described
are somehow different: ‘those’ people probably look different, they may sound different and they
definitely behave differently. In short, they are not like ‘us’. This study attempts to unpack these
myths and to uncover who ‘those’ people really are. It explores why they are on welfare, what
life on welfare is really like and how helpful the Ontario Works system really is in supporting
them and helping them to move on to a better life after welfare.
Like all stereotypes, however, there is a grain of truth in some of these accounts. Take Janet, for
example, a thirty-four year old welfare recipient. It is true that she is a sole support parent and she
has twice been on assistance for extended periods of time. Take the time to listen to her, though,
and a very different truth emerges. This is not someone who chose welfare, as few, if any, would
consciously choose to live in such hardship. On the contrary, Janet has worked hard to provide
for herself and her child. Both times she turned to welfare as a last resort. The first time, her
husband left her --- taking with him the family income and leaving behind their one-year old
child. Janet struggled to make ends meet, working two and even three part-time jobs at a time.
Juggling the different daily schedules was a constant challenge, as was trying to get by on the
minimum wage compensation she received from each. Despite her commitment to work, she still
needed assistance. Based on such experiences, Janet knows that “minimum wage isn’t going to
pay my rent and take care of me and my kid. I’ve tried that and it’s just stupid” (R1#45). So Janet
went back to school and set up as an aromatherapist and aesthetician. Although there was no
shortage of compliments and encouragement, business was slow. After persevering for several
months she was forced to accept that her dream was not going to succeed. Yet. With no income,
she was forced to turn to assistance again. She still plans to make it a success and has returned to
school to improve her business skills. Even now while she is at school, Janet volunteers at two
organisations. Clearly, Janet knows all about hard work and she knows all about struggling to
So too Jane, another single parent. Jane is a separated female in her late thirties who fled an
abusive relationship and moved to Toronto where she has family. Prior to that, she had worked
for more than twenty years, mainly in retail management. With pay hovering around minimum
wage, however, it was always necessary to take on extra work as a waitress or bartender. At one
stage, Jane managed a couple of coffee roasting houses and had plans to set up her own business,
before succumbing to an addiction. She won that battle and her working life changed course. Jane
was employed for more than three and a half years as a respite worker and youth counsellor with
addicted children. However, she was forced to end this job, when she had her second child and
could no longer tolerate the exhaustive twenty-four hour shifts. Like many other panel members,
it became clear talking to Jane that she had often volunteered in the past --- everything from
artist’s societies to feeding the homeless --- when there was no threat of financial punishment to
‘encourage’ her. She is currently volunteering more than twenty hours a week at a community
agency. With two young children, one of whom has behavioural problems, life remains very
stressful for Jane. She told us that there is constant hardship and that the monthly allowance is
never enough: “Asking a family of three to find a place to live for five hundred and three dollars
a month in this city? Give me a break!” She worries continually about whether she can feed her
two young children the right amounts and quality of food each week. In this vulnerable situation,
the prohibitive rules of welfare make little sense to her. She told us she was informed by a worker
that if her family help her feed her children, then she doesn’t need to be on welfare. As Jane
commented, she needed help, “not the threat of being cut off because my parents bought some
groceries.” In addition, it was a real struggle to find daycare and she remains concerned about the
quality of care one of her children is receiving.
Jane’s biography reveals its own truth: a wife and a mother who has worked long hours over
many years; who has contributed to her community and who has escaped an abusive relationship
and a personal addiction and survived. Her long-term goal now is to complete a property
management course and become a condo manager. Jane did not want to be on welfare. Although,
she was in a dire situation after leaving her husband, she used up the small amount of money she
brought with her before resorting to assistance. Like Janet, this was no lifestyle choice, no easy
option. There was no alternative. As Jane confirmed, she needed welfare as a “social safety net
and stepping stone to the rest of my life. Not as a lifestyle, not as my goal” (R1#69).
And then there’s Minaa and Javier. It’s true that both are immigrants and both are on assistance,
but the last thing they expected when they moved to Canada was to seek government support.
Minaa came to Canada with her husband and children four years ago as a refugee. After
struggling to get by for a year unassisted, the marriage dissolved and she was forced to turn to
assistance for help. In her home country of Afghanistan, Minaa attended university and trained in
pharmacy and chemistry. She spent five years working in hospitals in Pakistan and also worked
as a teacher. Minaa is desperate to work and provide for her family. Her search for work takes her
from street to street, enquiring at every business she passes. Each journey brings with it closed
doors and countless rejection. Occasionally there is good news, though, when she persuades
someone to give her a chance to prove herself. Minaa’s last job was working as a part-time
dishwasher, but the position ended after six months. Currently she is working part-time as a
cashier. The hours vary depending on business and in a good week she can clock up fifteen. But
just like Janet and Jane, the pay is never enough to support herself and her family. And just like
many other immigrants, her skills and experience have not helped her find the work she desires,
and is trained for. Despite all this, Minaa has not resigned herself to a life on welfare: sitting back
and waiting for the next cheque. There are children to feed and clothe and the money never goes
far enough. She has already had to move to cheaper accommodation once this year and there have
been many times when she could not afford enough food. She remains on welfare not by choice,
but through poverty. And driven by poverty, and a determination to improve her situation, she
keeps walking the streets, looking for work. Somehow amongst the constant job search, caring
for her family, and the part-time work, she still finds time to take English lessons ten hours a
week and to volunteer at the local school. Reflecting upon her time in Canada, Minaa tries to
remain optimistic. She is happy that she came and is grateful for all the help she has received.
However, the struggles of the past four years have taken their toll and at times her pain and
despair are obvious. “It’s too hard for people coming from another country”, she told us,
“everything is new. It’s so hard. I am nothing. I don’t have experience, I don’t have anything.
Nothing can help me” (R1#36).
Javier has only been in Canada just over a year. He brought his savings with him to start a new
life, but this money dwindled away as he waited and waited for a work permit. Although Javier
now has the permit, he has been unable to find work and has turned to assistance for support.
Javier is trained as a chemical engineer and has a PhD. He also has more than ten years work
experience in Mexico as the manager of a plastics factory and as an engineer at a large
international company. Like Janet and Minaa, Javier is busy looking for work as well as
volunteering eight hours a week. In addition, he is taking English classes five hours a day, five
days a week. Javier welcomes the chance to volunteer, seeing it “as a kind of reciprocity, giving
something to the government for what it was giving me” (R1#16). He offered to give classes in
chemistry, maths and administration, but the only volunteer work he was offered was cleaning,
something he has been doing for three months. Despite his experience, Javier did not expect to
start work as a manager in Canada and, used to long days and poor working conditions, he is
prepared to start at the bottom and work his way up on merit. However, he questions the logic of
working as a cleaner when it will not help him professionally. Instead, it would make more sense
if he could “start at the bottom in something he knows how to do and advance bit by bit”
The experiences of Javier and Minaa are typical of many immigrants. On average, immigrants are
more educated than the general welfare caseload. Frequently, however, the qualifications they
have attained outside the country are not recognised. Similarly, they may be highly skilled and
have extensive work experience, but the lack of Canadian work experience (often no more than a
legal euphemism for racial exclusion) provides a significant barrier to employment and to the life
they dreamed of before they entered Canada.
And then there are the people on welfare that we never hear about. The people who have
extensive work histories, but who now find themselves struggling to find work in the face of
downturns and discrimination. People like Jack, a divorced male in his fifties. Jack entered the
labour market with a high school diploma and has had more than 25 years work experience.
Although he has a diverse skill set, having worked as a journalist and photographer, most of his
work history and all of his recent jobs have been low wage and often part-time. In the mid-1990s,
Jack worked at a news gathering agency. Before that he worked through a temporary job agency
doing short-term light industrial jobs and as a parking lot attendant. All of these jobs paid about
$7 an hour. When the news agency job ended Jack was forced onto welfare when his
Employment Insurance ran out. He has been on welfare around five years now, but has held a
part-time job editing a website for much of that time. He earns $200 for this. Despite Jack’s life-
long commitment to hard work, his efforts have never been adequately rewarded. With no
savings to speak of, Jack has few options and now feels trapped on welfare. He told us that when
he applies for jobs there are hundreds of other, younger people chasing the same positions: “Age,
age, age,” he explained, “They’re not supposed to discriminate, but they do” (R1#67).
Like Jack, Robert is in his fifties. Robert was a successful dot.com manager and also ran a martial
arts school. Around a year ago, however, his world was turned “upside down” (R1#75). Robert
became severely diabetic and ended up in hospital in a coma. He was forced to spend a few
months in bed and even now he still has problems with his eyesight and is on anti-depressants.
Robert was working in the US at the time, as he has done frequently, but decided to move back to
Toronto as the medical bills mounted. He returned to a city where he had few work contacts and
where the markets for the skills he had were in sharp decline. After seeing his income slashed
from over $60,000 one year to almost nothing the next, for the first time in his life, Robert was
forced to turn to welfare for assistance. Robert is determined to find work and has long-term
plans to train as a counsellor. As his health is slowly improving he is now volunteering, working
on databases and updating files. However, he is struggling to find paid work. His philosophy on
work is simple: “You don’t have to be a genius to be able to do a job. Just have to work and
apply yourself.” But at the moment, the offers of work are few and far between. In his 40 year
working life, Robert was always hired on reputation. He never applied for a job and never needed
a resume. Now, it is the first thing he is asked for. Over the last year or so, Robert’s life has been
drastically transformed: “I went from having my own car, my own job, my own income to now
being on the phone and having to argue with some bureaucrat for bus tickets” (R1#75). He has
struggled to pay the rent since returning to Toronto and has had to move to cheaper
accommodation. Robert told us that in America he owned a 2000 square foot martial arts school.
Currently, he lives in a rooming house; an 8 by 10 room that costs almost as much in rent.
Making the monthly payments for rent, food and bills is a challenge and Robert has “fallen into a
hole a few times,” something he says which has challenged his integrity. To stretch his income
from month to month he has been forced to sell CDs from his collection. Robert could have been
speaking for all the people we interviewed when he observed, “It’s a question of survival at this
What emerges loud and clear from the experiences of the panel members in this study, is that
they actually look, sound and act an awful lot like ‘us’. They are young and old, in good health
and in poor health, highly educated and under-educated, with experience in the labour market in
both highly skilled and well-paid jobs as well as in marginal jobs with low pay and no benefits.
Welfare recipients also differ in their reasons for needing assistance, in their family types and
sizes, in their housing arrangements and in their length of time on welfare. For many of us, a
personal tragedy could lead to a need for assistance. So it is with our panel. Losing a job, losing a
spouse, losing good health led many of our panel to turn to welfare as a last resort. In the new
economy, characterized by increasing insecurity in the workplace, and increasingly
individualized risk, the grim reality is that the safety nets many of us took for granted are no
longer there. Listening to the stories of people on welfare, what unites the vast majority is a
shared struggle to move on with their lives: to make something of themselves or return to the
livelihood they once had. This report uses their words and experiences to paint a picture of what
life on welfare in Toronto is really like and shifts the focus from myth to reality. In doing so, the
desire is to provide people on welfare with a platform so that we can hear their voices and see
them as they are: not abstract anecdotes, but real people with real struggles and real lives.
Study Background and Purpose
As a result of our reforms and Ontario's strong economy, more than 620,000 people have moved from
welfare to work since June 1995 – saving taxpayers more than $13 billion … This government has
completely transformed social assistance into a program of opportunities to help Ontario Works participants
overcome barriers to getting a job (Brenda Elliott, Ontario's Minister of Community, Family and Children's
Services, News Release, March 7, 2003).
In an increasing number of countries welfare is being re-cast, in a different form and with a
different function, as welfare-to-work or workfare. Under the Progressive Conservative (PC)
government, Ontario has been at the forefront of such reforms in Canada. At the heart of their
efforts is Ontario Works (OW), a compulsory, work-first program that focuses on rapidly
attaching participants to available local jobs. OW has been credited with dramatic success with
more than 600,000 people leaving the caseload since 1995. Beneath the crude statistics, however,
little is known about the longer-term circumstances of people who have left workfare or, indeed,
of those who remain on a much-changed system. Although there has been a glut of research and
evaluation in other countries that have embarked on such radical reform, notably the United
States and the United Kingdom, much less in known in the Canadian context. Indeed, in Ontario,
there has been a notable absence of serious evaluation by the government with only two snapshot
leavers’ studies; one in 1996 and one in 1998. Consequently, many unanswered questions remain
about the impact of welfare reform, in particular how helpful OW has been in meeting
participants’ needs and helping them to move into work; how well they are coping financially,
and whether or not they subsequently return to welfare.
The Social Assistance in the New Economy (SANE) research program has been established to
address many of these unanswered questions about the changing nature of social assistance in
Ontario. SANE is a multi-year study, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research
Council, which is composed of a number of complementary research projects investigating:
• The welfare and post-welfare experiences of a longitudinal panel of welfare recipients.
• The economic circumstances of people leaving social assistance.
• The functioning of employment programs in a decentralised policy context.
• The changing regulatory and legal frameworks of social assistance.
This report focuses on the preliminary findings from the longitudinal panel study which attempts
to further our understanding of the impact of reform in two significant ways. First, the study
provides greater insight into welfare reform as experienced by social assistance recipients
themselves. Specifically, it captures the personal stories of 90 individuals who were receiving
assistance in Toronto in the fall of 2001. Many accounts of reform are written from a managerial
or administrative perspective and focus solely on cost-based issues such as whether caseloads are
rising or falling. While such information is both valuable and necessary, too often the voices of
welfare recipients are excluded from debates about how ‘successful’ reform is. Adopting this
different perspective may challenge some of the assumptions about welfare reform: for example,
from the perspective of recipients the chief goal is not to cut caseloads and control costs, but to
survive from one inadequate cheque to the next and to secure relatively stable work that pays
enough to escape welfare. Operating from this bottom-up perspective provides a platform for the
voices of social assistance recipients to be heard and to put their beliefs about Ontario Works
front and centre.
Second, while little is known about life on workfare from the perspective of those participating,
even less is known about the longer-term experiences of exclusion that people face as they enter
assistance, navigate the systems and leave welfare. This study will therefore track the experiences
of our panel members as their lives move on. Those who leave welfare will become part of the
statistical success story of OW. But away from the glare of publicity, what is the reality of their
lives beyond welfare? And what is happening in the lives of those who remain on assistance? As
many of the panel as possible will be interviewed in September 2003 and then again the
following year to see how their experiences with OW have shaped their lives over the succeeding
two years. Subsequent interviews will track the new experiences of interviewees so that by the
end of the study there should be a detailed understanding of the welfare and post-welfare
experiences of our sample of social assistance recipients.
This report --- the first of two drawn from the first round of interviews with panel members ---
focuses on how participants are faring on social assistance. The second report explores their
experiences negotiating the welfare system, capturing their views on the new two stage
application process, the merit of the different employment and volunteer activities they have been
involved in and their relationship with front line workers. For the vast majority, rather than a
helpful programme, Ontario Works is characterized by constant suspicion and surveillance.
By allowing people to talk about their experiences with welfare and by following them over time,
the hope is that this study will yield new insights into many of the taken-for-granted assumptions
about welfare reform and will contribute to more informed debate about possible future directions
for a more humane, efficient and effective system of social assistance.
Most significantly, our panel is much more highly-educated than the general welfare population
and is over-represented amongst single recipients, older recipients and long-term welfare
recipients. It also contains a significant number of immigrants, but relatively few of these have
been in Toronto for a short amount of time. These differences mean that different issues and
concerns about welfare may emerge from those that are typical.
Family Type: The panel contains a disproportionate number of singles (n=53) compared to both
the city and provincial caseloads. Thirty respondents are sole support parents. This closely
matches the profile for Toronto but is slightly lower than the total caseload. Seven members of
the panel are couples either with or without children. Couples account for approximately 13% of
both the Toronto and Ontario caseload.
Age: Compared to the provincial caseload, the panel is heavily concentrated in the 35-44 age
range (40% compared to 28%). It is significantly under-represented amongst younger social
Detailed information on the demographic profile of the panel is contained in Appendix 2.
assistance recipients (24 and under and 25-34). Similar patterns emerge for sole support parents
Education: The panel is polarized in terms of very high and very low levels of education. Fifty-
one percent of the panel have post-secondary education, around two and a half times the total
caseload (21%). Forty-two percent had not graduated from high school, with 3% recording that
they were educated to grade school level only. Single members of the panel had higher levels of
education than sole support parents with 52% of singles indicating some post secondary
education compared to 40% of sole support parents. However, while more singles had graduate
degrees (17% compared to 7%), the percentage of sole support parents and singles with
postgraduate degrees was the same at 7%.
Length of Time on Assistance: The panel is composed almost equally of those with long and
short-term spells on welfare. Forty-four percent of respondents indicated that they had been on
welfare for twelve months or less. At the other end of the scale, 40% of respondents reported
being on welfare for more than two years. Compared with the provincial caseload, the panel was
considerably under-represented amongst very short-term welfare users (10% compared to 23%).
The panel was heavily over-represented amongst long-term users (22% compared to 7%). Similar
patterns emerge for both singles and sole support parents, with close matches across the 4-12
month and 25-59 month categories and significant differences amongst very short-term users and
those on for five years and more.
Diversity: Forty-one members of the panel (45%) indicated that they were born outside of
Canada. Contradicting the myth of welfare as a magnet for immigrants, relatively few (n=10)
have been living in Toronto for less than 2 years. Many are long-term residents of Toronto no
different than the rest of the population. Indeed, more than 40% have been living in the city
longer than ten years.
Peoples’ basic needs should be covered. If you have a safe home, if you have food, if you have clothes, you can go
on to think about other things but if these basic things aren’t covered then you’re constantly worried and anxious.
You can’t think of anything else (R1#105)
Social assistance rates have always been meagre, providing only the absolute minimum deemed
necessary for shelter and basic needs on the premise of not diminishing work incentives. On
October 1st 1995, these already inadequate rates were slashed 21.6% by the recently elected
provincial Progressive Conservative (PC) government. Throughout the PC years in office there
has been no increase. As each year passes with no adjustment even for inflation, the impact of
this massive cut becomes more and more devastating for welfare recipients. Eight years on,
members of our panel reported a constant struggle to make ends meet and to survive from one
month’s cheque to the next. They told us they were “barely existing” (R1#117), that they were
living in “misery” (R1#13) and that it was “degrading” (R1#50), “demeaning” (R1#19) and
“humiliating” (R1#69) trying to get by on welfare. The vast majority reported having problems
finding suitable shelter, as well as paying their bills, having enough money to eat and to clothe
themselves and their children, and finding the money for unexpected costs, such as medical bills
or repairs. Despite their best efforts to budget, the money that is available simply cannot be
stretched to cover even minimal needs. For most, hardly anything is left after they have paid the
rent. As a result, respondents are forced to rely on food banks and other emergency resources.
Before exploring their experiences in more detail, a brief reflection on the amounts of money
welfare recipients must try to survive on reveals the extreme poverty that they contend with day
in, day out.
A recent report by the City of Toronto spells out the stark financial reality that welfare recipients
living in the city now face. The monthly cheque that recipients receive is made up of two
components: a shelter allowance and a basic needs allowance. Before the rate cut in 1995, the
maximum single people could receive was $660 a month to meet their shelter and basic needs.
After the cut, the maximum benefit was reduced to $520. A single parent with a child younger
than 1, had their income cut from $1,221 to $957 and a single parent with two children from
$1,483 to $1,162. The maximum benefit for a couple with two children was cut from $1,596 to
$1,250. Further erosions caused by increases in the cost of living over the last eight years mean
that social assistance recipients must now survive on 35% less than was available in 1995 (City
of Toronto, 2003). Living in such poverty shapes every aspect of welfare recipients’ lives. The
feelings and experiences of the members of our panel provide much-needed insight into the day-
to-day hardships that result from these inadequate rates. In particular, members of the panel
highlighted shelter costs, bills, food and health. Significantly, they also stressed how living in
poverty had a detrimental effect on their efforts to secure work. Many were literally trapped on
welfare and, as a consequence, in deepening poverty.
Respondents were asked two questions about their financial status. Given the inadequacy of the
rates, it was no surprise that when questioned about how well they were coping financially,
almost two thirds (n=58) of respondents indicated that they were coping either poorly (n=28) or
very poorly (n=30) (Table 1). Not surprisingly, nobody reported that they were coping very well
and only five that they were coping well. Of these, one had only recently started receiving
welfare and one had recently left welfare.
Table 1: Coping Financially
How well are you coping financially? Number of Respondents
Very Well 0
Very Poorly 30
No response 1
Throughout our discussions, conversation turned time and time again to the amount of money
respondents were forced to exist on. The majority of panel members told us that there was simply
“not enough money to actually live on” (R1#101) and that it “doesn’t even cover basic needs”
(R1#105). The following quotes capture the feelings of frustration and despair that were
It’s a bloody joke! It’s not enough. It really isn’t (R1#54)
They don’t give you enough money to begin with, to meet all the bills that you have. It’s barely enough to
cover the rent (R1#34)
It is hard enough to live on Employment Insurance. When you cut back to $520.00 a month, you are not
living. You are barely existing (R1#117).
Numerous respondents told us how they tried to budget and plan to stretch their funds as far as
possible, a situation which left them in a state of constant worry. Two respondents described how
this financial hardship was ever present and weighed heavily on their minds:
Peoples’ basic needs should be covered. If you have a safe home, if you have food, if you have clothes, you can go
on to think about other things but if these basic things aren’t covered then you’re constantly worried and anxious.
You can’t think of anything else (R1#105)
You have to plan out how much you eat each month and how much you spend on utilities and how much your rent
is. You’re worrying about money all the time (R1#81).
As the last respondent continued, even with the most meticulous planning and budgeting, there
just isn’t enough money “for the last 2 weeks of the month” (R1#81). Another informant, a single
male in his fifties, who criticized the monthly allowance as “absurd” in a city like Toronto
described “scraping around for nickels and dimes at the end of each month” (R1#67). Many
respondents reported having to rely on emergency community resources as well as family and
friends to get from cheque to cheque. As one single woman in her forties told us:
I have to get money from my sister every month for food, clothing, what not. We are not supposed to get money
from our family. But what am I going to do? … I am not saying walk into our house and we have leather couches,
we are eating gourmet food or anything, but at least so that we can survive, pay the rent, have food on the table
Hearing these stories, it is difficult not to echo the simple question posed by one participant who
asked how this amount of money is calculated. The respondent, a middle aged married male with
one child, had moved to Toronto from Bangladesh 18 months earlier. Despite the fact that he
holds a Masters Degree and has substantial work experience, he has been unable to find work.
The emotional burden of trying to support his family on an amount that bears no relation to the
city’s cost of living became increasingly evident as he continued:
My rent is $975 and I only get $720. Then there’s my telephone bill, internet bill, television bill, my food. It
costs at least $1500. My question is, if you know that I have no money, how am I meant to live? Am I
meant to drink water from the lake or just live off fresh air? OW makes people liars because they cannot
survive like this (R1#90).
As other members of the panel discussed their own daily struggles to survive, they also revealed
the severe toll on their self-esteem and emotional well-being. Having to struggle to survive on
these amounts was “demeaning” (R1#19) and “degrading” (R1#26) and respondents reported
feeling “neglected” (R1#39), “like a low form of life” (R1#76) and that it was “punishing”
(R1#42), “dehumanizing” and “humiliating” (R1#69) trying to survive on welfare. Aside from
imposing unnecessary hardship on welfare recipients, such perpetual poverty undermines the
physical and emotional ability of recipients to re-connect to the labour market, the main stated
goal of Ontario Works.
Table 2 shows how respondents compared their financial situation to a year ago. Significantly,
over half (n=50) stated that their situation was somewhat or much worse. That recipients’
economic circumstances are getting worse over time is no surprise given the provincial
government’s refusal to increase rates. A number of panel members spelt out this basic truth:
while their living costs were rising all around them, they were forced to survive on the same
meagre income. One respondent poignantly asked: “What do I do when things go up?:”
They only give you enough just to get by, if that. When things go up they tell you ‘Well, this is the
maximum that we can give you.’ What do I do when things go up? Because they do go up every year, your
rent, hydro and phone (R1#58).
Another stressed that benefits needed to be “a little more in touch with the realities of life” and
Rent costs a lot more than I’m allowed and rent goes up every year. Food goes up. And my kid’s growing.
I’ve got to buy clothes all the time. It’d be nice if it just reflected inflation. There’s no clothing allowance.
It’s tough getting clothes and shoes (R1#45).
Table 2: Financial Situation compared to one year ago
Compared to one year ago, your financial situation is? Number of Respondents
Much better 5
Somewhat better 11
About the same 24
Somewhat worse 20
Much worse 30
No response 0
Faced with increasing rents and other costs, recipients are left with the impossible task of trying
to find savings in an already inadequate budget. The changes in rates in relation to living costs
identified above suggest that the pressures and strains of surviving on such small amounts are
magnified even more for families, and for sole support parents in particular:
I cannot survive on the money that I receive from social assistance. You can see yourself. You can see my
house. This money isn’t enough to feed my children. Most of the time I cannot afford laundry and I have to
wash my children’s clothes with my hands (R1#108)
You can’t feed a family on $700. We receive a cheque, the next day after you’ve bought diapers and food for a
week, it’s gone. That’s about $370 per person. Those diapers, I’m not saying they’re expensive but when James
was born, we went out and we bought everything. We needed to get a car seat and we bought clothes. He outgrew
those in a month (R1#70).
Strict budgeting and resorting to food banks and charities are strategies that might help welfare
recipients survive from one month to the next. However, the experiences of panel members show
that so precarious is this existence, so fragile are monthly finances, that it takes no more than an
unexpectedly high hydro bill or a child needing new shoes for all the rationing to be thrown awry
and to force the family budget over the edge. The new father quoted above, eloquently described
the agonizing effect this has:
You feel worthless. You’re going there because you can’t do anything. You have to look at your wife. Look in her
eyes. Look at your child. They need new shoes. What can we cut out? (R1#70).
The brutal reality is that for the majority of our panel members there are no economies that can
be made. There is nothing left to cut.
“You can’t rent a closet for that” (R1#117).
In the eight years since social assistance rates were cut, rents have risen dramatically. For
example, between 1995 and 2002 average rents in Toronto increased by around 32% (City of
Toronto, 2003). The average cost of a two-bedroom apartment in 1994 was $784 a month. By
2002 it had rocketed to $1,047. While the shelter allowance is meant to cover all shelter costs,
with no increase since 1995, the reality is that welfare recipients must use their basic needs
allowance to pay for shelter. As a result, the vast majority are trapped in an “affordability
squeeze” (Shapcott, 2003). Fewer and fewer properties are available that they can afford and
recipients are forced into substandard accommodation that is often overcrowded and decrepit.
The huge increase in shelter costs stems from a combination of drastic cuts in federal and
provincial funding for affordable public housing and the decision by the Progressive
Conservative provincial government to abolish rent controls. In 1993, the federal government
stopped all funding of new housing initiatives. In 1995, the Ontario government cancelled 17,000
units, as well as all future funding for new social housing. Between 1993/94 and 1999/2000, the
province slashed its housing spending by a quarter --- more than $300 million --- (Shapcott,
2003) and by 1999, Ontario had gone from “spending more than $1.1 billion annually on housing
to spending zero” (Shapcott, 2002: 7). As a result, in the past eight years, Ontario has lost over
45,000 rental units and more than 23,000 affordable social housing units (Shapcott, 2003). In
addition, in 1998 the Ontario government passed the Tenant Protection Act which removed rent
controls on new or vacant units. This has led to huge rent increases and has also contributed to
tenant insecurity by providing an incentive for landlords to evict because there is no limit on what
they can charge for a vacant property.
More than 80% of those on assistance rent private sector accommodation. The rhetoric behind
these changes was that the private sector would meet the need for affordable housing. Instead, a
dangerous void has emerged with huge demand for social housing but virtually none being built.
Indeed, between 1999 and 2002, the private sector built only 2000 new units each year across the
entire province (Daily Bread Food Bank, 2002). When demolitions and conversions of existing
properties are included in the calculation, the net gain is less than 300 per year. All too little, too
late, in May 2002, the federal and provincial governments declared a new deal for social housing.
The federal government committed to spending $245 million, with the province contributing only
$20 million (Campaign 2000, 2003; Daily Bread Food Bank, 2002). However, given the huge
cuts which had gone before, these figures do nothing to address the crisis of housing across
Ontario and especially in Toronto. In fact, it is estimated that the deal will meet only 5% of the
costs of new housing that is desperately needed (Daily Bread Food Bank, 2002).
The impact of these changes is, perhaps, felt hardest in Toronto, where falling supply and rising
demand is fuelling the highest average rents in the country. Typically, rental vacancy rates above
3% are considered to reflect a healthy market. According to the Canada Mortgage and Housing
Corporation (CHMC) rental market survey in November 2002, the vacancy rate in Toronto lies
below 3% and those that are available are clustered at the higher end of the rental scale (Shapcott,
2003). These properties are too expensive for those on assistance. Indeed, the proportion of rental
stock with monthly rents that could be characterized as low has fallen steadily since the late
1990s (City of Toronto, 2003). For example, the proportion of bachelor apartments available at
$500 or less fell from 27% in 1998 to 7% in 2001. Meanwhile, the proportion of 1 and 2 bedroom
apartments available at $600 and $700 a month or less, fell from 16% and 13% respectively in
1998 to only 6% and 7% respectively in 2001. Given that the maximum shelter allowance for a
family of three is $554 per month “well over 90 percent of existing one and two-bedroom rental
stock is unaffordable to such families on Ontario Works” (City of Toronto, 2003: 5). At the same
time, the demand for social housing has grown significantly in recent years. The waiting list for
subsidized housing in Toronto increased by almost a third between 1999 and 2002 (City of
Toronto, 2003) and now includes more than 40,000 children (Campaign 2000, 2003).
Against this background, it is no surprise that shelter costs were a major concern for respondents.
Three problems in particular were raised repeatedly by members of the panel: the problem of
meeting these increased costs; the poor quality of the accommodation they can afford; and the
increasing insecurity that surrounds their shelter status. There is clearly a huge gap between the
cost of shelter and the monthly Ontario Works shelter allowance. The City of Toronto (2003)
reports that almost three-quarters of Ontario Works clients (72%) now pay shelter costs in excess
of their shelter allowance. As one respondent expressed it, the “Ontario Government is kidding
themselves if they think any one can find even a room in this City for $300.00 a month. You
can’t rent a closet for that!” (R1#117).
Table 3 shows that almost half of the panel (n=43) reported that they had to pay the rent or
mortgage late in the past year. Given the extremely limited funds available, it would not have
been surprising if more respondents had reported paying their rent late. However, when trying to
juggle extremely limited resources, meeting shelter costs is the first priority. Indeed, as rent costs
and other bills are fixed, often the only flexibility is in the food budget and this is where most
cuts are made.
Table 3: Paying the Rent
Have you had to pay the mortgage or rent late? Number of Respondents
No response 3
Panel members shared with us their personal experiences with spiralling shelter costs. The
following representative quotes illustrate widely held feelings about the inadequacy of the shelter
You can’t live on that in Toronto. They give you three hundred for rent. You get a cubby hole in Toronto!
Go check an apartment down here and see what you think. It’s crazy for the lousy money they give you
They should look at your rent and give you enough to pay for your rent, not give you $511 and you just
have to find somewhere cheaper to move because you cannot find a place for $511 … I cannot rent a
bedroom and a house with a little girl. I do not know where I am supposed to live (R1#16)
The money definitively either has to go up with rents or they got to do something. The cheapest is $730 a
month. We get $525 a month … This one guy beside me, he goes “I’m behind 5 months on my rent.
Welfare gives me $475 a month, my rent is $850 a month” (R1#121).
As already noted, the removal of rent controls has also opened up this vulnerable population to
rapidly rising rents, as well as to the increased risk of exploitation. One male respondent in his
fifties (R1#107) decided to move in with his seriously ill mother and to leave his own apartment.
After she passed away, he discovered that his name hadn’t been added to the lease. A few days
later he received a telephone call from his landlord informing him that he was increasing the rent
from $600 to $900. He couldn’t afford this and was forced to leave. Another informant told us
that his landlord applied for a 14% rent increase last year. He was granted 12% and the tenant had
heard he was going to apply for an additional 6% this year (R1#117). A third panel member
informed us that her landlord was cheating him. The landlord is demanding a payment of $70
towards heating costs, but is not providing the tenant with any heating: “he’s got the furnace off.
It’s freezing” (R1#121). The frustration of one panel member in particular graphically illustrated
the human impact of runaway rents:
I live in misery. I pay $360 for a room which is not heated. It’s cold, but its $500 for a good room. It all
comes down to money (R1#13).
As the experiences of these last two respondents show, although welfare recipients are forced to
spend more on rent, this is no guarantee of quality. A recent survey by the Daily Bread Food
Bank found that more of their service users are being “forced into overcrowded, decrepit housing
because they cannot afford anything more” (Daily Bread Food Bank, 2002: 1). Panel members
confirmed these findings, informing us that they “were forced to live in dumps” (R1#121) and
that they had “looked all over this city and you would not believe what I saw for thirteen,
fourteen, fifteen-hundred dollars … just trashy, cockroach infested” (R1#69). As the following
representative quotes demonstrate, living in overcrowded and shared accommodation was all that
many respondents could afford:
All three of us sleep in one room, 8 by 10. All three girls and myself. On more than one occasion, [my
worker] said to me “you’re in safe housing, why do you need to look for an apartment?” Then I remind her,
with three people sleeping in one room, it’s not ideal. It’s very cramped. You just can’t live like that. I don’t
want to raise my kids like that (R1#23)
I came from Europe where I was a commercial manager. I had two companies. I had my own home. Here I
live in a shared one bedroom basement … The amount is not sufficient, but what can we do? (R1#05)
Once in a while they ask you for a lease update. Now, your name has to be on the lease with whoever
you’re living with, who’s sharing your rent. Obviously on this kind of money you have to share. There’s no
way you can get an apartment or a shelter for $325 (R1#76).
Living in cold, cramped, and crowded housing has many adverse consequences for health and
well-being. Not least, it contributes to levels of stress and depression, which in turn make it
harder to cope and move off assistance. The experiences of panel members also reflected the
increasingly insecure nature of their shelter status. As Table 4 shows, more than a third of the
panel (n=31) informed us that they had been forced to move in the last year to more affordable
housing. The increased struggle to meet shelter costs is also shown in fears of eviction and
homelessness. One participant (R1#79) explained her shock at discovering that her rent was
increasing to $800 when she only receives just over $300 dollars in assistance. She is already
struggling to get by, having to repay student debts, and is fearful about what this means for her
future and where she will end up living. Another participant told us how the breakdown of her
marriage led to her eviction along with her children:
My husband and I separated. He left the house we were living in. I was pregnant with my second child at
the time, I was 4 months pregnant. The housing people allowed me to stay there through my pregnancy ‘til I
had the child in April but because I wasn’t able to pay the rent I was evicted. I had nowhere to go (R1#23).
Table 4: Forced to move
In the last year have you had to move to more affordable housing? Number of Respondents
No response 1
Such experiences have been reported far more often since controls on landlords were lifted with
the passing of the Tenant Protection Act. In Toronto alone, over 50,000 applications to evict were
processed in the first two years of the legislation, leading one newspaper article to comment on
the ‘manufacturing’ of homelessness in the city (Ramsey, 2000). The Centre for Equality Rights
in Accommodation (CERA) tracked 6,000 eviction applications processed in a twelve-week
period. Detailed interviews with tenants revealed significant problems: 29% of the tenants
interviewed had not received a copy of the application to evict and 32% of tenants who had
received a copy did not understand that they had to respond in writing within five days to gain a
hearing. This is not surprising as along with the application, tenants receive a notice of hearing
that states a date has been scheduled, and provides a time, room number and address. Most
tenants naturally assume they have a hearing. Finally, of those tenants in arrears, 85.5% were
only two months or less in arrears. CERA’s study found that time after time non-payment was
precipitated by a personal crisis such as death or separation and divorce.
While estimates of the numbers of homeless people vary, there is broad agreement that numbers
are rising. In its Report Card on Homelessness 2001, the City of Toronto confirmed this increase
in the city. It found that the majority of people staying in Toronto’s emergency shelter system are
still single men. However, two-parent families and couples without children are now the fastest
growing group of shelter users. For example, in 1988, there were 320 two-parent families in the
shelter system. By 1999, this number had grown to 2,070. Moreover, in 1999, over half of the
people in emergency shelters were “first time users” suggesting that more people are being
sucked into the shelter system as the rental market moves beyond their resources. Significantly,
the survey also found that people are staying in emergency shelters for longer periods of time.
The critical shortage of affordable housing means that people have nowhere to go. Such housing
of last resort is being normalized as a housing alternative for more and more of the city’s most
vulnerable. One respondent who was forced to use the shelter system, reflected on how much life
I’m the oldest in my family. I’ve got younger brothers and sisters who have houses, cars and all that. Because I was
the oldest I was raised to take care of the younger ones, but now the younger ones help me. I can’t do anything
about that. This is me now. I’ve got a room, a shared kitchen and a bath that’s shared with everybody else (R1#71).
The accommodation of this divorced male in his forties was now characterized by uncertainty
and insecurity as he moved from shelter to shelter and rooming house to rooming house. Apart
from the devastating personal blow, living in shelters and other increasingly insecure
accommodation undermines the stability that is the foundation stone to re-entering the labour
market and moving off welfare. As one panel member, who herself had been forced to use the
shelter system, powerfully expressed it:
Housing is number one. That’s first and foremost, far more important than work because you need the
Basic Needs Allowance
The basic needs component of social assistance is intended to meet all necessary expenditures
beyond shelter. As we have seen, however, the fact that the shelter component itself is woefully
inadequate means that many are forced to use their basic needs allowance to supplement shelter
costs. Recent calculations by the Pay the Rent and Feed the Kids coalition show that a single
person with one child under 12 now has to try and survive on as little as $8.73 a day (Pay the
Rent and Feed the Kids Fact Sheet, 2003). Meanwhile, a single parent with two teenage children
has just $15.13 to meet all costs after shelter and a couple with two teenage children only $14.73.
These family types account for the vast majority of families with children currently receiving
Ontario Works. The experiences of our panel members suggests that this is having a huge impact
on the day to day lives of Ontario Works recipients’ as they struggle to pay bills and put food on
the table. It impacts negatively on their health and on their ability to secure work.
Panel members were asked whether their hydro or phone had been disconnected in the past
twelve months because they had been unable to keep up with payments. Table 5 shows that more
than a third (n=32) had at least one of these services cut.
Table 5: Disconnections
In the last year have you had to disconnect the hydro or phone? Number of Respondents
No response 4
Saving for $200 connection fee 1
Two people recorded that they were nearly cut off and another was saving to get reconnected.
Interviews with panel members captured a depressing and demoralizing cycle of struggling from
one bill to the next. A number of respondents told us that they did not have a telephone in the
first place. The absence of a telephone both increases social isolation and also makes it harder to
be in contact with potential employers. In addition, it can jeopardise personal safety when
emergency services cannot be contacted. Lack of funds, however, mean there is a constant trade-
off among the different bills to be paid each month. One respondent explained how his family
struggled to find enough each month to pay something towards the hydro bill. On one occasion,
they had no money to make the regular payment, so they paid twice as much the next month.
They were still cut off and now had to come up with a deposit:
We paid them as much as we could from what we were earning, but they still cut us off. We used to pay $50
regularly. I didn’t pay for a couple of months and then paid $100. They still cut us off. They told me, “Your
habit has been this way for a few years, suddenly you don’t pay for 3 months and then you give us $100.
We didn’t think it was you”. Now they want a $30 deposit. Where are we going to get that from? (R1#70).
This is not uncommon. Disconnections for late payments have increased in recent years and
utilities companies are more likely to demand reconnection charges to restore services. Further
evidence of the struggle to make ends meet is apparent in the use of food banks by panel
members. Food banks have become a grim fact of life for many in Toronto. Between 1995 and
2002 there was a 35% increase in food bank use and in 2002, an average of 155,000 people used
food banks in the GTA each month (Daily Bread Food Bank, 2003). Significant numbers of these
were welfare recipients. This new and disturbing reliance on food banks was reflected in the
responses from the panel. As Table 6 shows, as many as 55 members of the panel had been
forced to use a food bank within the last year. That so many people are now forced to use food
banks is a further indication of the broadening and deepening of poverty in Toronto. Again, the
impact of the benefit cut has been devastating. Food bank use increased immediately after rates
were reduced and has not returned to previous levels. Many welfare recipients have no other
option than to use food banks, but this is not unproblematic. While food banks provide some
relief for food insecure households, recipients often describe mixed feelings associated with their
use, further contributing to stress and emotional upset. As one informant told us “I am going to
food banks now. I’ve never been. It’s very humbling” (R1#101). In addition, there is still great
anxiety about where the next meal is coming from. Many panel members still reported having to
go without food.
Table 6: Food Bank Usage
In the last year have you had to use a food bank? Number of
No response 1
Recipients were also asked how often they had worried about whether there was enough to eat in
the last twelve months (Table 7) and how often there was actually not enough to eat (Table 8).
Seventy-six respondents reported that they had been worried about whether they would have
enough food to eat and despite using food banks to supplement their diet, more than two-thirds
(n=62) had been forced to go without food on a number of occasions. Of these, almost a quarter
(n=22) had done so often. Finally, the range of food provided by food banks is not sufficient for a
healthy diet. There is only limited access to fresh fruit and vegetables in particular. As one panel
member told us, “you go to food banks, you get a bunch of cans and you get Kraft dinner and if
you eat crap like that you’re gonna get fat. It’s not healthy at all” (R1#101). Another respondent
(R1#122) had a medical condition that required a special diet. She used food banks out of
necessity, but the carbohydrate-heavy intake was damaging her health.
Table 7: Worry about having enough to eat
In the past 12 months, how often did you worry that there would not be Number of Respondents
enough to eat?
No response 1
Table 8: Not Enough Food to Eat
In the past 12 months, how often did you not have enough food to eat? Number of Respondents
No response 1
We asked how often in the past 12 months respondents were unable to eat the quality or variety
of food that they wanted (Table 9). An overwhelming amount (n=75) indicated that they did not
eat the quality and variety of food essential for a healthy and nutritious diet in the last year. For
over half of the sample (n=50) this was a frequent occurrence, while for a further twenty-five this
happened often. As was noted earlier, often the only elastic part of an impoverished budget is the
amount available for food. In the face of rocketing rents and other bills, panel members are
forced to exist on grossly compromised diets. Food banks help, but, even so, many frequently go
Table 9: Quality and Variety of Food
In the past 12 months, how often did you not eat the quality or variety that Number of
you wanted to eat? Respondents
No response 1
Not eating a nutritious diet, just like missing meals and going hungry, leads to a range of health
problems. Compromised diets increase tendency to chronic disease, as well as anxiety and
depression. People are also more likely to experience feelings of alienation and exclusion,
overwhelming stress and major depressive episodes. The nutritious diet essential to good health,
however, is an option that seems to lie beyond the income of many panel members. In this
environment, it is no surprise that one respondent spoke passionately about how she felt
“punished for not having any money” and that as the bills are juggled and the budget is
overstretched, she simply “gets less food” (R1#76). As people struggle to make ends meet,
financial strains exacerbate existing health problems or lead to new ones. Frequent hunger and
continually compromised diets only add to this unhealthy situation. Not surprisingly, therefore,
Table 10 shows that an overwhelming number of panel respondents (n=78) reported living in
stress. Indeed, more than half of the panel (n=50) described their life as “very stressful.”
Table 10: General Stress
Generally, how stressful is your life at the moment? Number of Respondents
Very stressful 50
Somewhat stressful 28
Not very stressful 9
Not stressful at all 1
Don’t know 1
No response 1
Finally, in addition to the health effects of poor diets and increased stress and anxiety, panel
members indicated that a lack of money further jeopardises their health and that of their families,
by making unexpected, but necessary medical costs an unaffordable luxury. Two respondents
described their own circumstances:
I was very sick and I had to pay $100 for the doctor. [My caseworker] said “We’re not going to pay for you,
you paid yourself.” Then I bought some medicine for $96 and it’s not covered either. From $300.00 how
much money have I got left? She told me “We can’t do anything for you, we just pay for your rent and food,
that’s it. (R1#79)
I’m a diabetic patient. They pay only $42 and my wife also is a diabetic patient. I paid $25 for the letters from my
diabetic specialist. It was an emergency and he knows we’re on social assistance. How can I pay $50? Yesterday I
had an appointment and the secretary asked me to give them $50 next time otherwise, I can’t see the doctor. It’s
very unfair (R1#82).
This initial report has two main objectives. It provides an introduction to our panel and it
provides an initial assessment of how they are coping financially eight years after social
assistance rates were significantly reduced. In many regards, our panel is a microcosm of society
at large. It is composed of those with little or no education, but also those with extensive
education, including some with postgraduate degrees. It contains members who have been on
welfare for long periods of time, as well as those who have only recently started on assistance.
The panel includes singles, sole support parents and couples with and without children, young
and old, and those who have lived in Toronto all their lives as well as those who have recently
arrived. It is important to note, however, that our panel differs in significant ways from the
general caseload. In particular, it is much more highly educated, contains more singles, fewer
younger recipients and more long-term recipients. These differences mean that different issues
and concerns about welfare may emerge throughout the course of the study from those that are
That said, the experience of respondents in terms of their financial status is both depressingly
familiar and consistent across the group. Panel members spoke with almost one voice in
describing the difficulty they had trying to make ends meet. In particular, members reported
having problems finding suitable shelter, as well as paying their bills, having enough money to
eat and to clothe themselves and their children, and finding the money for unexpected costs, such
as medical bills or repairs. Despite their best efforts to budget, the money that is available simply
cannot be stretched to cover even minimal needs. For most, hardly anything is left after they have
paid the rent. As a result, for many panel members having to rely on food banks and other
emergency resources such as shelters is becoming increasingly common.
Frequently, policy-makers claim that there is a direct relationship between the level of assistance
rates and the ‘motivation’ of people to look for work and leave welfare. Relatively generous
rates, it is claimed, encourage people to remain on welfare. As we explore in more detail in
subsequent reports, little evidence emerges from our panel that participants are unmotivated or
unwilling to work. However, there is strong evidence that such depths of poverty produce new
barriers to progression in the form of poor health, social isolation and an inability to meet the
costs of transportation and clothing necessary to look for work. As a result, instead of the “hand
up” that the provincial government promised, regardless of the merits or otherwise of any
employment initiatives under Ontario Works, the deep poverty it imposes acts as a huge obstacle
to progression. As the compelling comments of two participants demonstrate, instead of
developing plans for the future, they feel trapped in poverty:
You can’t move. You can’t do anything. If you want to do something you can’t do it because you’ve got no
money to do it. You’re stuck in a hell-hole with bread, cheese and peanut butter. Every dime they give me I
have to spend just to get by. How am I ever going to get ahead in life? (R1#91).
It’s a real struggle and it doesn’t make you feel it’s a struggle and I’m going to go back to school for 3 years
and get an education to get a good job. You don’t feel like that because you don’t have time to even think.
You’re just constantly struggling, in your mind, emotionally, mentally (R1#42)
Away from the stereotypes, therefore, and based on the experiences of the vast majority of panel
members, the reality of life on welfare more closely resembles a constant struggle to survive.
Appendix 1: Methodology
In September 2002, Toronto Social Services (TSS) randomly selected 1500 names from their
database of current social assistance recipients. Those selected were sent a brief letter explaining
TSS’ purely administrative role in the study, along with a one-page letter of invitation/study
outline from the Social Assistance in the New Economy (SANE) project describing the study,
why they were being asked to participate and the nature of their participation. The letter assured
recipients that participation in the study was entirely voluntary and that their decision to
participate or not would have no effect on their access to benefits and services through Ontario
Works. In fact, OW would not know if they chose to participate as responses would be sent to
SANE not TSS. The letter also stressed the confidential nature of the study and informed
participants that any responses that were eventually used in study reports would be anonymous.
To ensure that participation was voluntary, the letter included a contact telephone number for
interested recipients to call for more information and/or to participate in the study. In an effort to
ensure those who did not have regular access to a telephone were not excluded, a voicemail was
set up and the letter informed potential participants that they could leave a message at any time of
the day or night. If they called from a public telephone, the research team would return the call
either straight away or at a time and place of most convenience to them. The letter of
invitation/study outline (and the Consent Form) were translated into the following languages
which were suggested by Toronto Social Services based on their experience of the caseload at
that time: French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese and Tamil. Four interviews were completed in
In all efforts to recruit participants and throughout the research relationship, it was repeatedly
stressed that any information collected would be treated in the strictest confidence. Potential
participants were informed that any information shared was completely separate from Ontario
Works and Toronto Social Services and that no identifying information would be passed to them.
It was also stressed that participation in the study would not affect their access to benefits or
services in any way. Participants were reassured that they could withdraw at any time: whether
before or during the interview process or between one round of interviewing and the next. The
relatively small sample size and the likelihood of attrition mean that the panel is not statistically
representative of the larger population of social assistance recipients. Nevertheless, it was
selected to ensure participation of the widest possible range of assistance recipients. Callers were
asked a number of questions (such as age range and family type) so that the growing sample
could be compared with the Ontario Works caseload profile in the city. However, given that some
attrition is expected in the future, no-one was excluded from the panel at this stage. Finally, it
was important to the research team that participants were paid for the insight and assistance they
provided. A small financial gift of $25 was therefore paid to each respondent and where
applicable transport and child care fees were also paid.
Of the 1500 letters mailed out, 123 people contacted the research team representing an initial
response rate of approximately 8%. This was far in excess of original expectations given the
methodology (potential respondents had to contact us) and the characteristics of the population
(suspicious of TSS). However, 33 people dropped out of the study between the initial contact and
the first interview. Only a small number of people appeared to make a conscious decision to
withdraw from the study. Four people reported that they were no longer interested in participating
and indicated either that their circumstances had changed in some way or that they had simply
changed their minds. In addition, one person withdrew because he misunderstood the nature of
the study and was anxious instead to make contact with TSS about a family member’s status on
assistance. Many of the others who did not continue fell into a category best described as
“withdrawn by default.” The reasons were numerous. In three cases, for example, between the
respondent contacting the research team and the call being returned the telephone service was
disconnected. Two other people moved out of the province before an interview could be
arranged. Five people agreed to participate, but then failed to show up for an interview and
subsequently could not be contacted by telephone. A further 16 people never returned calls at all.
Finally, one respondent called, but forgot to leave contact details and did not call again. In total,
then, in-depth, semi-structured interviews were conducted with 90 social assistance recipients.
Each interview was audio-recorded for subsequent transcription and all were designed to last
around an hour.
Appendix 2: The Panel in Context
Severe recession, combined with the federal erosion of Unemployment Insurance
(UI)/Employment Insurance (EI), saw the social assistance caseload in Toronto peak at
approximately 126,000 in early 1994. Since then, the numbers have fallen rapidly. In December
2002, the caseload for the city stood at around 62,700. This caseload is more diverse and
complex than it is often described. It is also much more dynamic with significant numbers
entering and leaving welfare each month. During this time of decline, for example, there have
been significant changes to both the overall caseload composition and the duration of claims. In
part, these changes result from strong economic growth which has made it easier for some,
especially singles, to leave the caseload. However, in addition, welfare policy changes in the
form of restricted eligibility rules and ongoing monitoring and reviews of cases have combined to
make it much harder to access, and remain on, assistance. For example, between 1995 and mid-
1999, the proportion of families on assistance increased rapidly to become the majority (City of
Toronto, 2001a). This was the result of a significant reduction in the number of singles remaining
on assistance, combined with the transfer of more than 11,000 single parent cases formerly
managed by the Ministry of Community and Social Services. In October 1999, the number of
single parents receiving assistance peaked at 33,800 or 44% of caseload in Toronto. The figure is
now around 34% (Table 2).
The following provides a summary of the key demographic characteristics of the panel and,
where possible, compares them to this changing caseload for both the city and the province as
Table One: Composition of panel by gender
Gender Panel % Toronto % Ontario %
(September 2002) (December 2002)
Female 55 61 46,428 58% 110,929 59
Male 35 39 34,184 42% 77,935 41
Total 90 100 80,612 100 188,864 100
Of the 90 respondents who completed the interview, 55 (61%) are female and 35 (39%)
are male. This closely matches the overall provincial caseload distribution.
Table Two: Composition of panel by family type
Family Type Panel % Toronto % Ontario %
Single 53 58.9 32,839 52.4 90,658 48
SSP 30 33.3 21,499 34.3 73,850 39
Couples: children 5 5.6 6,529 10.4 18,417 10
Couples: no children 2 2.2 1,836 2.9 5,939 3
Total 90 100 62,703 100 188,864 100
As there is an absence of public data, comparative data is drawn from unpublished provincial documents detailing
caseload composition in Fall 2002.
Singles: Fifty-three panel respondents (59%) described their family type as single. This is
significantly higher than the caseload for both Toronto and the province. As of December
2002, singles comprised around 52% of the caseload in Toronto. Across the province,
there were 90,658 single individuals on welfare across Ontario, representing around 48%
of the total caseload. Twenty-nine single respondents (55%) were male. This compares to
63% of singles on OW who are male and 41% of the total caseload.
Sole Support Parents: Thirty respondents (33%) are sole support parents. This closely
matches the profile for Toronto (34%), but was slightly lower than the total caseload. All
of the panel members who identified themselves as sole support parents were female. In
Toronto in September 2002, 95% of sole support parents were female and across the
province 94% of sole support parents are female.
Couples: Seven members of the panel were couples with and without children. Couples
account for approximately 13% of both the Toronto and Ontario caseload. Members of
the panel with children represented about half the city and provincial caseloads
respectively, while those without were closely matched.
Singles: Between 1995/1996 and 2001/02 the singles caseload on OW declined by about
55% from 193,836 (or 42% of the total OW caseload) to 87,879 (or 45% of the total OW
caseload). However singles started to rise again in 2002/2003.
Sole Support Parents: The sole support parent caseload has declined since the mid-1990s.
On average, sole support parent cases dropped by almost 10% every year, representing a
decline of 59% by 2001/02. This compares to total Ontario caseload decline of
approximately 57%, or around 9% a year.
Couples: Couple cases fell by almost two-thirds between 1995/96 and 2001/02. The
average annual decline amongst couples with children was slightly higher at 11% a year
compared to 9%.
Table Three: Composition of panel by age and family type
Age Panel Total OW (%) SSP (%) Singles (%)
Panel Total OW Panel Total OW
< 24 9 20 7 20 10 22
25-34 22 29 36 36 17 23
35-44 40 28 47 32 38 24
45-54 18 16 10 11 20 19
55-64 10 7 0 2 15 11
65 + 0 0 0 0 0 1
Refused 1 0 0 0 0 0
Compared with the total caseload, the panel has approximately half as many people aged
24 and under (9% compared to 20%). The panel is also slightly under-represented in the
25-34 age range (22% compared to 29%) and over-represented in all other categories,
notably the 35-44 age range (40% compared to 28%).
Sole Support Parents: The panel is under-represented in the 24 and younger category (7%
compared to 20%) and significantly over-represented in the 35-44 category (47%
compared to 32%). The vast majority of sole support parents in both the panel (83%) and
the total caseload (68%) lie in the 25 to 44 range. This compares to 57% of the overall
Singles: The panel is closely matched across the 25-34, 45-54 and 55-64 categories, but
similar to the sole support parents is under-represented by about half in the 24 years and
younger range and significantly over-represented in the 35-44 range (38% compared to
Table Four: Composition of panel by education level
Education Panel Total OW (%) SSP (%) Singles (%)
Panel Total OW Panel Total OW
No Education 0 0 0
Grade School 3 3 4
Some high school 39 50 36
Graduated high school 6 7 8
Some community college 12 10 15
Graduated community college` 11 13 9
Some university 4 3 4
Graduate degree 15 7 17
Postgraduate degree 9 7 7
Refused 1 0 0
Grades 1-6 4 3 4
Grades 7-8 7 6 7
Grades 9-11 37 39 38
Grades 12-13 30 31 30
Post secondary 21 20 20
No Education 1 1 1
The panel is polarized in terms of very high and very low levels of education.
Twenty-eight percent indicated that they had attended university, with 15% gaining a
degree and 9% obtaining a postgraduate qualification. A further 23% had attended other
forms of postsecondary education. Totalling 51%, this is around two and a half times the
number of the total caseload (21%) that were recorded as having post secondary
42% of the panel had not graduated from high school, with 3% recording that they were
educated to grade school level only.
Sole Support Parents: Approximately 39% of sole support parents on the total caseload
have some secondary education, 31% have a grade 12 or 13 and 20% have postsecondary
education. 9% have only elementary. There are no significant differences between
education levels of sole support parents and the caseload as a whole. Overall on OW 48%
of cases have lower than a grade 12 education
Single members of the panel had higher levels of education than sole support parents with
52% of singles indicating some post secondary education compared to 40% of sole
support parents. While more singles had graduate degrees (17% compared to 7%), the
percentage of sole support parents and singles with postgraduate degrees was the same at
Table Five: Time on Assistance by Family Type
Time on Assistance Panel Total OW (%) SSP (%) Singles (%)
Panel Total OW Panel Total OW
Up to 3 months 10 23 7 15 14 31
4-12 months 34 31 23 27 35 34
13-24 months 13 18 16 18 10 17
25-59 months 18 20 27 33 14 12
5 years + 22 7 27 7 21 6
Leavers 3 0 0 0 6 0
The panel is composed almost equally of those with long and short-term spells on
Forty-four percent of respondents indicated that they had been on welfare for twelve
months or less. For a significant number of these, cycling between welfare and work was
an almost continual experience throughout their working lives.
At the other end of the scale, 40% of respondents reported being on welfare for more than
The panel was closely matched with the provincial caseload in the 4-12 month and 25-59
The panel was considerably under-represented amongst very short-term welfare users
(10% compared to 23%) perhaps reflecting the frequency in which the economic
circumstances of this group changes.
The panel was heavily over-represented amongst long-term users (22% compared to 7%).
Similar patterns emerge for both singles and sole support parents, with close matches
across the 4-12 month and 25-59 month categories and significant differences amongst
very short-term users and those on for five years and more.
Sole Support Parents: The panel is under-represented amongst sole support parents who
leave welfare after three months or less (7% compared to 15%) and over-represented
amongst those who remain on welfare longer than two years (54% compared to 40%). For
the longest category (5 years and over) the panel is over-represented by almost four to one
(27% compared to 7%). The provincial averages, however, do not include time spent on
Family Benefits prior to OW being introduced. The average time for sole support parents
before transfer was approximately 6 years.
Singles: Similarly, the panel is significantly under-represented amongst singles who leave
welfare after three months or less (14% compared to 31%) and over-represented amongst
those who remain on welfare for longer than two years (35% compared to 18%). For the
longest category (5 years and over) the panel is over-represented by 3.5 to 1 (21%
compared to 6%).
In 1991, the average welfare spell in Toronto lasted around 7 months. This rose to 18
months in 1995 and by 2001 had increased to 26 months. By December 2002, the average
time for all OW recipients across the province was around 20 months but 56% of the
provincial caseload is on welfare for less than 12 months.
In part, the rising trend in length of welfare spells reflects the transfer of single parents
onto the general caseload discussed earlier. On average sole support parents stay on
welfare longer than other family types. The average stay for sole support parents in Fall
2002 was 25 months, compared to around 22 months for couples and 16 months for
singles. However, it also reflects the increased proportion of the caseload who have severe
barriers to work, often referred to as ‘harder to serve.’
Table Six: Ethnic/Racial Background and Main Language
Background Panel Language Panel
White 34 English 63
Black 11 Spanish 6
Latin American 4 Russian 4
Irish/Scottish 4 Portuguese 2
West Indian 4 Hungarian 2
Aboriginal 4 French 1
Russian 3 Arabic 1
Italian 2 Bengali 1
West Asian 2 Persian (Farsi) 1
Other 17 Other 7
Refused/No response 5 Refused/No response 2
Total 90 90
The caseload in Toronto has also become much more ethnically and racially diverse
reflecting Toronto’s position as the chief home of newcomers to Canada.
Table Seven: New Canadians
How long living in Canada? Panel Adjusted
< 2 years 10 24
3-5 years 7 17
6-10 years 4 10
11–15 years 6 15
16-20 years 0 0
21-25 years 5 12
26 years + 6 15
Born outside but unknown 3 7
Not applicable 49 0
Total 90 100
41 panel members were born outside Canada.
Seventeen respondents (19%) had moved to Canada within the last 5 years.
Contradicting the myth of welfare as a magnet for immigrants, relatively few (n=10) have
been living in Toronto for less than 2 years.
Many are long-term residents of Toronto no different than the rest of the population.
Indeed, more than 40% have been living in the city longer than ten years
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