The best social assistance program is a job

By MPP Toby Barrett

It’s been said many times over, that the best social program is a job. Work provides self-worth, dignity and independence.

But Ontario has 500,000 people on unemployment and over 450,000 on welfare. The Official Opposition has a multi-faceted plan to change this.

It’s time to wake up our social welfare system. Reforms must provide a guarantee where recipients are better off working than being on assistance. Everyone deserves their best shot at a successful and fulfilling life.

To ease the path to employment, our recently released white paper and the work of Don Drummond, Frances Lankin and Munir Sheikh recommend the integration of Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support Program. The focus is on ability not disability — respecting the distinct needs of those with disabilities. Further, each recipient would develop a personalized ‘Pathway to Employment Plan’ which would refocus social assistance programs on what they are meant to do: assist recipients towards finding employment and ending dependence.

It is counterproductive to penalize those who want to work. Our white paper advocates social assistance recipients who are working, as an incentive, keep more of their earned income. And for those who are able-bodied and remain on the welfare roll for a long time, there would be a staged reduction of their benefits.

With over 800 rules and regulations muddying the system, caseworkers can spend as much as 70 per cent of their time on red tape instead of working directly with clients. This has to change.

Social welfare should focus on outcomes. If non-government organizations – charities, non-profits, private sector – can get results by administering programs more effectively and efficiently, then it’s time to accelerate contracting out.

We know, “one-size-fits-all” doesn’t work. Social welfare recipients face different challenges. We propose client-centered funding to concentrate on the individual needs of each recipient. Vulnerable people and their families do not care which level of government or which ministry or agency is responsible for providing support – they just want help.

There are limited opportunities for people with disabilities to enroll in post-secondary education and training. We must prioritize funding to allow disabled students to enroll in a supported environment. And we can encourage employers to hire people with disabilities by providing tax deductions for special equipment or technology.

At the end of the day government has a responsibility for the proper management of public funds on behalf of all citizens. Oversight is key – we propose value-for-money audits, and also clearing up Ontario’s backlog of 40,000 ODSP medical reviews.

The traditional approach to the funding of social programs can be costly and often produces unsatisfactory results. Social Impact Bond or “pay for success” models are being pursued around the world. These initiatives are a cost-effective way of using the private and non-profit sectors to fund and deliver social programs focused on better outcomes, not bureaucratic process.

As I travel the province holding round tables on social welfare, one of the comments I hear is that some recipients don’t spend enough of their benefits on necessities like healthy food. For this reason I suggest Ontario implement a benefits-directed debit card to ensure the money intended for necessities is set aside for that purpose.

Prosperity defeats poverty and the best route to financial independence is employment — not dependence on social assistance programs.