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One day after Premier Doug Ford's government scrapped a scheduled increase to the province's minimum wage, Ontario has proposed changes to its social programs that aim to provide new assistance for the province's most precarious workers.
Social Services Minister Lisa MacLeod introduced the major planks of the new plan on Thursday. It proposes to increase the amount that someone on welfare is allowed to earn before their support payments are clawed back. It also proposes to increase access to employment services, and change rules that determine who qualifies for assistance.
"Social assistance in Ontario is simply not working for the people it is intended to support," MacLeod said on Thursday, blaming the previous Liberal government for taking a "one-size-fits-all approach" that left people "dependent on government and trapped in a cycle of poverty."
Opposition legislators say that these proposed changes clash with policies and legislation adopted by the government in recent weeks. These include reducing the number of paid days that an employee can take off for personal reasons from 10 to eight as well as the cancellation of a pilot program offering a basic minimum income.
But MacLeod explained how some of the changes could help Ontario residents.
One example involves a proposed change to the Ontario Works social assistance fund. Under the existing program recipients were allowed to earn up to $200 per month, without seeing their assistance payments clawed back. MacLeod said that the government would now raise this threshold to $300, with a 25 per cent exemption on any further earnings.
This falls short of a promise made by the previous Liberal government to raise the threshold to $400, with a 50 per cent exemption on any additional earnings, before any clawbacks. The Liberals said they would implement this change over the course of the next three years.
The Ford government has said it was forced to scale back Liberal programs in order to reduce the deficit and improve the province's finances. But it has still managed to improve some of the programs and services.
Another example involves those on the Ontario Disability Support Program who now receive $2,400 annually, but would now receive $6,000 annually. Recipients will see 75 per cent of any earnings above that higher limit taken off their benefits.
These "compassionate" changes will be implemented gradually over the next 18 months, MacLeod said, to create as little disruption as possible to Ontario's most vulnerable workers. Almost one million people are on social assistance in Ontario; one in seven Ontarians live in poverty.
MacLeod’s plan says the number of Ontarians on social assistance has increased by 55 per cent over the past 15 years. And, while the welfare program’s goal is to get people back to work, there are 255,000 people in the Ontario Works program, with very few leaving.
Despite this, MacLeod did not share any details about how her proposed changes would affect Ontario's current spending on welfare and disability payments that now total about $10 billion per year. She also did not offer any evidence to justify the government's decision to stop an increase to the minimum wage, while increasing social assistance payments.
MacLeod told reporters that those currently receiving disability supports from the province will be grandfathered into the new system, but would not say whether fewer would be able to qualify in the future under the new rules.
Opposition MPPs call out contradiction in welfare assistance plan
MacLeod's announcement comes after a 100-day review by the government to develop what it calls a "sustainable social assistance program" that MacLeod said was "far too focused on red tape, administration and government oversight."
It also comes a few months after the Ford government moved to cancel a basic income pilot project that supported 4,000 low-income earners in cities such as Hamilton, Brantford, Thunder Bay and Lindsay, which MacLeod has previous called "a disincentive to get people back to work." The pilot program cost $50 million annually and would have seen a single person receive up to $16,989 a year and a couple receive up to $24,027 annually.
In scrapping these programs, MacLeod announced a replacement system that would streamline the provincial welfare support program, and align the definition of disability with that used by the federal government.
But, Ottawa does not have a single definition for what constitutes a disability but critics say the threshold to qualify for disability benefits under the Canada Pension Plan is higher than it is for the Ontario Disability Support Program.
The most common federal definition applies to Canada Pension Plan Disability (CPPD) applicants, who can only get support if their illness is likely to prevent them from working indefinitely. If applied to Ontarians, it could mean that those with disabilities that can work occasionally or could work eventually would be denied support.
MacLeod didn't specify whether this was the case during her announcement but noted that part of the overhaul would also involve employing "a multi-ministerial" lens to all the changes.
At the same time, MacLeod's plan also announced a cut to the planned three per cent increase in social assistance, reducing it instead to a 1.5 per cent increase. This prompted opposition legislators to say that the minister's rhetoric that promised "a compassionate approach" to social assistance didn't match her proposals.
"If this ministry really wants to talk about lifting people out of poverty and if they really want put people off social assistance...what they would make sure is that the minimum wage is something people can live on," NDP MPP Social Services critic Lisa Gretzky told reporters after MacLeod's announcement.
In Toronto, the Daily Bread Food Bank recently reported that over 60 per cent of its users rely on social assistance to make ends meet. Last year, the food bank had almost one million visits. Daily Bread Food Bank CEO Neil Hetherington warned that Ford’s cuts to social assistance will only drive these numbers up.
"How can you call it compassionate when you cut the increase in social assistance in half to below the rate of inflation, which is effectively a cut, and people already can't survive on the allowances they have?" Ontario Green Party leader and MPP Mike Schreiner told reporters.
Schreiner said that Ontarians were already finding it difficult to qualify under the existing definition of disability in the province, and the change proposed by MacLeod was "an effort to restrict people's access to Ontario disability supports (further)."
"(MacLeod) says she wants people to go into the workforce. Well, then don't penalize the people for working. Pay them a living wage," Schreiner said. "This is just continuing to create disincentives to work for people and contradicting what the minister said."
with files from The Canadian Press
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Editor's note: this story was edited at 10:45 EST on Monday, Nov. 26, 2018 to accurately reflect the income received by someone in the Ontario Disability Support Program. We regret the error.