Two weeks ago, the report of a government-appointed panel on Ontario’s social assistance system was made public. The report, entitled “Recommendations for an Ontario Income Security Review,” was written by the 11-member Ontario Social Assistance Review Advisory Council, which had been struck in December 2009 by the McGuinty government.
The Council had been asked to make recommendations on the “scope and terms of reference that would guide the development of [a] social assistance review.” In other words, members were charged with advising the McGuinty government on how to go about creating a process that would in turn advise the government on how to go about improving its social assistance system. (At least the McGuinty government can’t be accused of rushing this!)
I have two general comments on the report. First, I was relieved to see it recommend that the Ontario Income Security Review “[d]evelop standards for a liveable income and a process to use those standards to assess the adequacy of Ontarians’ incomes.”
Such a recommendation may sound straightforward to some, but in fact it’s been well-known for years (especially since the mid-1990s) that welfare rates do not even come close to reflecting what a household needs to live in Ontario, most notably in a major urban centre. Moreover, I have found that many policy dialogues over social assistance tend to stay clear of this specific topic all together, preferring instead to focus on more ”publicly acceptable” policy objectives, such as reducing marginal tax rates for welfare recipients and increasing child benefits. In other words, it seems much more appealing for some experts to focus on the so-called “deserving poor” (i.e. those who have a realistic shot at finding work or those with children) than it is to focus on the so-called “undeserving poor.” So, kudos to the panel for this recommendation!
My second observation has to do with the council’s assertion that “[t]he development of a housing benefit paid outside of social assistance should be a priority.” As I have argued elsewhere, I support the idea of a “housing benefit,” especially in response to a recession. But I do hope that the advantages of building non-profit housing are not lost in this process. Indeed, as I argued in a 2007 paper, building non-profit housing offers many benefits that “housing benefits” (similar to “rent supplements,” “shelter allowances” and “housing allowances”) do not.