Is Social Assistance a “Poverty Pariah?”

An article in the current edition of NOW Magazine looks at social assistance in Ontario. The article is aptly entitled “Poverty Pariah,” in light of how apparently unpopular Ontario’s welfare system has become over the past 20 years.

As can be seen at the National Council of Welfare’s Interactive Welfare Incomes Map, a single adult on welfare in Ontario receives $7,501 per year. In real terms, this benefit level is roughly 35% lower now than it was in the mid-1990s.

I was struck by many examples provided in the article of how politically unpopular some advocates believe it to be to even broach the topic of substantially increasing benefit levels.

Several interesting points are raised in the article, including the following:

Inside or Outside? John Stapleton, one of Canada’s foremost experts on social assistance, is quoted in the article as stating that social assistance “is a bad brand.” He suggests that, in part for political reasons, it would be more pragmatic to reduce poverty “outside of social assistance.”

Intentional or Not? Some believe that the McGuinty government has intentionally “crafted” the recently-announced review of the social assistance so that the final report is released well after this fall’s provincial election. Those who make this argument believe that voters would not be impressed if the Liberals were seen to be improving the lives of social assistance recipients. 

- Through the Backdoor?  The Daily Bread Food Bank is advocating in favour of a $103/month housing benefit “for low-income tenants via the tax system.” Presumably, “housing assistance” is an easier sell than “living assistance.” Likewise, policy delivered through Canada Revenue Agency, it would seem, has an air of thrift and sensibility to it, moreso than policy that involves “spending.”

Food.  Some activists are trying to sell the provincial government on the Put Food In The Budget campaign, “which seeks to increase the monthly food portion of the social assistance cheque by $100.” Again, it seems that some believe it’s easier to sell voters on the need for low-income individuals to “eat” than it is for them to “live.”

In reference to the Put Food In The Budget campaign, NDP Member of Provincial Parliament Michael Prue is quoted as saying: “I have asked hundreds of questions in the last 10 years on this topic [at Queen’s Park] and have never once been quoted in the newspaper. Nobody has been interested. The NDP is standing back and asking, ‘Do we run on a platform when there is no public interest?”

I’m struck by what appears to be deep-seated pessimism on this important public policy issue. Even serious policy wonks are bending over backwards to conceal their proposals with smoke and mirrors, lest anyone realize that they’re advocating for a very low-income individual to live on more than $7,501 a year.

When did it become ‘common sense’ for swing voters to believe that there is a job for every resident of Ontario? And when did it become acceptable to believe that $592/month is a sufficient amount of money to live on in Ontario? 

Lest blog readers be left with the impression that there is no reason to hope that important gains can be made on the poverty-reduction front, I’ll offer two.

First, the Ontario government’s Poverty Reduction Strategy appears to have made a small dent in the child poverty rate, even during the recent recession. For more on that point, see this recent piece in the Toronto Star. 

Second, as Jim Stanford points out in this March 2010 opinion piece, very significant gains have been made over the past four years in Ontario on the minimum wage front.

Four years ago, I would not have predicted either of these outcomes.


  • Prue is correct to suggest there probably isn’t much political bang for a buck of welfare increases (unfortunately). In 2007, the ONDP didn’t put any money in their platform for welfare increases, only saying they would kick it to a panel. Now they don’t put any significant money into it in this year’s platform or even talk about poverty there. Even the “put food in the budget” campaign estimates their modest $100 increase in Ontario Works benefits would cost $500 million. Raising it to something like $1,000 a month (like OCAP wants) might cost $2 billion, not including any increase you might want to make to ODSP.

    I’m not sure at a cost of billions it makes sense to just pile things into welfare when you could transition to a minimum income. That seems more likely to me anyway than some sort of large increase in benefits. Likewise if you had ~$2 billion in Ontario you could start up a Quebec-style child care program which would be vastly more politically popular and also put a good dent in child poverty. At this point though it seems more likely that welfare recipients will have to work on chain gangs than ever receiving a liveable income.

  • Denise Freedman

    I’m not sure what a “dent in the child poverty rate” means.

    Does this mean children on the street, alone, have a few more bucks in their pockets?

    Or does this mean children in their “economic families of 2 or more” have more food, but not their parent(s)?

    Frankly, this is nonsensical to me; until children are part of the workforce, or there is clarity about those who are alone, we seem unable even to talk about the families they are part of.

    As for the minimum wage, I have worked for a national retailer for six years, and with steady merit increases, as well as a one time big bump when the minimum went up the first time under the Liberals, I make a grand total of 26 cents over minimum. I work with people who make so little, they cannot buy appropriate footwear for hours on their feet.

    I can give no statistics, but I do not believe there has been much improvement. I do believe that any discourse around reducing inequality, forget about equity, has been lost in the logic/magic of household finance and targeted tax cuts for the deserving–such as volunteer firefighters.

    Even the NDP has jumped on the bandwagon of tax cuts; I’m almost ready to vote Liberal, at least for their talk of the future.

  • At an NDP riding-level policy meeting where we discussing a proposed policy resolution calling for the end of child poverty. When it was pointed out the NDP should be working to end all poverty our MPP pointed out that on the doorstep people don’t really care about adults in poverty.

    I proposed an amendment to remove the word “child” from the resolution so it addressed all poverty instead of just “child poverty”. It didn’t pass.

    Even if the left doesn’t campaign on address all poverty doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t try to quietly reduce it in government.

  • Rentier Fungicide

    Asymmetrical federalism ≠ Canada Assistance Plan
    ≠ Guaranteed Annual Income

    Therefore ≠ economic or social justice

  • Denise Freedman

    I think Darwin makes an important and, sadly, strong point.

    The logic, if we can call it that, of childhood innocence has taken dominance over would, to a reasonable person, certainly, I would argue, a reasonable socialist, or democratic socialist, be the certainty that children, though innocent (except for those who run away) are dependent on adults, usually their parent(s).

    Adults are guilty, lazy, immoral and exploit the system. What happens when children are no longer children and have exhausted the moral forbearance?

    The NDP is hardly socialist/democratic socialist–as Pat Martin at the recent convention argued, these terms only get in the way.

    But what do they get in the way of?

    The trend of the NDP throughout its existence is towards liberal (Liberal) being more concerned with ‘optics’ than right–or even what is reasonable.

    More’s the pity.

  • I am not sure where to start on welfare reform. But this much is clear- it is just too low a pay out to survive in a manner that would allow one to make there way back into a world has a proper caloric intake that allows learning and housing standards that are warm and friendly.

    The cuts in many provinces were draconian and the whole work for welfare issue was nothing but a subsidy to the call center industry and retail and hospitality sector.

    nobody talks about it, nobody mentions it and nobody seems to notice that it is in many cases racially asymmetrical. I have seen some anti transfer anti immigrant movements based on hatred that turn my stomach.

    I still believe though that most progressives inside or outside the NDP believe that providing an environment that can precipitate change and break cycles of poverty are the goal, and it has got to start with raising transfers to these people.

    One thing that really scares me is the attack on the middle class regeneration infrastructure. This infrastructure, sum of the parts to generate a whole that is very very important to keeping our social and economic moving forward. And after 20 years of taking quite a few tent poles out, I am not sure how much more, given the new move to austerity, can be removed before the whole collapses.

    Attacking the middle class is also an attack on the ladders and flow of individuals moving from poverty into the stock of the middle income and vise-versa for the snakes.

    Institutional regeneration of the middle needs to be maintained and the mechanisms allowing those to move into the middle must be enhanced and at the basic core of this equation of the universe, is a subsistence level income that promotes it. And no a can of tuna is now longer 0.99$

  • While you progressives fiddle while rome burns I’ll be joining the revolutionaries. It’s time for the re-emergence of a new hard left. Reforming capitalism as we have seen is a giant failure because too many people buy into the myth that what you are paid is proof of what you are worth to society. That if you work hard enough get enough school, etc, ‘you too can make it like us’.

    What we’re seeing is the re-emergence of barbarism once again and more proof that marx is fundamentally correct over the longer term – capitalism has to be overthrown because the monopoly on media and schools gives the private sector such dominance that ensures these problems will never be solved by dividing and conquering the mindspace of mankind via indoctrination.

    The worst part is you are all so deluded and scared to stand for anything, you all stand for nothing.

  • “The worst part is you are all so deluded and scared to stand for anything, you all stand for nothing.”

    Have you even bothered to read the post or anyone’s replies to it, Infant?

    And, while you’re at, how about explaining what you think the “real revolutionaries” you so dick-stiffingly want to join are doing at this moment (as opposed to keeping tabs on what the Right is currently thinking and doing).

  • Michael Mendelson

    Nick misses one crucial consideration in respect of moving assistance ‘outside of welfare:’ a benefit outside of welfare is paid to everyone with low income regardless of whether that person is on welfare or working. The majority of poverty is among the working poor and not in any way limited to people on welfare. Moreover, programs that are broad-based and go to the whole community are more likely to maintain popular support, as we can see for example by the continued indexing of child tax credit benefits, contrasted to welfare which is often seen as for ‘the other’ and goes only to a small minority. You should also recall that the NDP government in Ontario did substantially raise welfare rates and that did not work out too well, did it? In contrast the Liberal’s Ontario Child Benefit is not under attack (by the way this was first planned under the NDP as the Ontario Child Income Plan but was not implemented when the loss of the tobacco tax took another billion out of tax revenue). The idea of taking benefits outside of welfare is not an attack on welfare, but a realistic assessment of what works, a much more solidaristic (to coin a phrase) type of program, and a real attack on poverty among both the working poor and the non-working poor. Welfare divides the poor: it does not promote solidarity.

  • “a benefit outside of welfare is paid to everyone with low income regardless of whether that person is on welfare or working.”

    But this is still as “exclusive” as welfare: the circle of people who are getting the benefit is widened, but you can bet those who oppose _any_ kind of progressive government transfers of wealth will keep right on shrieking about how unfair it all is right up until the top 1% get their share, too.

  • Michael Mendelson

    It may be that people at the higher levels of income will always complain about any redistribution to those with low incomes, but the point of a broad-based benefit is that it does not divide the ‘welfare-class’ against the ‘working-class.’ However, I note that in practice tax credits such as the Ontario Child Benefit and the Canada Child Tax Credit are so far well-accepted in Canada, with only a few hesitant complaints by the right so far.

  • @Todd,

    “And, while you’re at, how about explaining what you think the “real revolutionaries” you so dick-stiffingly want to join are doing at this moment ”


    The instigating comment always fails to point out just where the revolutionaries are in the mountains that we can all go join to get down to the real business of things. To my mind the present conjuncture is not triste for lack of a real revolutionary front as it is for the lack of even a committed reform liberalism. These are tough ideological times so I do, however, sympathise with Tito.

  • The problem with the child benefits and other benefits already paid “outside” of welfare is that the provision of these benefits led to the restructuring of welfare benefits where recipients felt little or no benefit much of the time. This also assumes there is a job for everybody that wants one. According to a Statistics Canada study, there are at least three people seeking a job for every vacancy that actually exists. What happens to the unlucky two that don’t get picked by employers, who I am observing are increasing discriminatory in their practices today? They still have bills to pay and need to be fed, as well as have a roof over their head. To destabilize their income at this point will only cause these same people to spend most or all of their day focusing on finding food, shelter, etc. and have very little energy left over for retraining or whatever they need to do in order to secure one of the increasingly scarce jobs.

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