Government paralyzed by social service file

“We want to work more.”
~ Michael, Community Living Tillsonburg

By MPP Toby Barrett

As Premier Kathleen Wynne was heading into her first caucus meeting as Premier last year at about this time, she told the media and thereby the people of Ontario one of her top priorities was to tackle social issues. One year has gone by and we’ve heard nothing from the Premier or her government on how they will implement any change to social services.
We all know proper planning and implementation take careful thought. However, the research on what needs to be done has now been completed several times over.

Several years ago, then Premier Dalton McGuinty appointed Frances Lankin and Munir Sheikh as commissioners for the Review of Social Assistance in Ontario. Lankin and Sheikh presented the current government with over 200 pages containing over 100 recommendations to shake up Ontario’s paralyzed social services system.

In the report Lankin and Sheikh write: “Social assistance as it is now sidelines people with disabilities and condemns too many people to a life of poverty and isolation. We heard from recipients across the province that they want to work, and are able to work, but they need the right support to reach their goals.  Putting people on a path to a better life reduces poverty and strengthens our communities, contributing to greater economic prosperity for all Ontarians.”

Prior to this report, the government had appointed Gail Nyberg as chair of the Social Assistance Review Advisory Council. Her report was submitted to government in May 2010 and spoke consistently about the need for decision-makers to move people from social services to employment.
The executive summary reads: Ontario’s core social assistance programs – Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support Program – together with the other programs that make up Ontario’s income security system, continue to fall short in providing an economic safety net for individuals and families as well as promoting opportunity to ensure everyone can contribute to the long-term prosperity of the province.”

In 2010 I introduced Private Members Bill 23, Enhancing the Ability of Income Support Recipients to be Financially Independent. In short, the bill called for working recipients to keep more of their own hard-earned money, allowing recipients to retain more assets and would have seen employers receive tax credits for hiring recipients. But government has dithered.

Bill 23 was well received in all corners of the province and to this day I still receive calls and emails asking if any hope remains.

Last January, after a year of meetings, roundtables and input across Ontario, Tim Hudak and I announced an opposition White Paper Paths to Prosperity: Welfare to Work – a summary of which was also published in Public Sector Digest.In it, we conveyed 12 recommendations to transform a system that is failing both social service recipients and taxpayers alike.
Even with all of these ideas, professional opinions and personal stories, the government hasn’t made a move to free people from the dysfunctional system currently in place. Those in government circles say the Premier can’t afford to make changes – anyone on social services feels she can’t afford not to. Change doesn’t necessarily have to be about more or less money but rather better investments and better return for all involved.