Social assistance reforms to help Ontario’s most vulnerable

By MPP Toby Barrett

A comprehensive package of reforms has been rolled out by the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services to encourage employment, restore people’s dignity and empower the province’s most vulnerable to break free from poverty.

Last year, more than 450,000 people – recipients and their dependents – received assistance through Ontario Works. Ontario Works is delivered through municipal and First Nations partnerships to provide temporary financial assistance to help people find jobs and become self-reliant.

The Auditor General of Ontario recently investigated the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services and the Ontario Works program. Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk findings don’t paint a pretty picture:

* Since the last audit in 2009, the average monthly number of Ontario Works cases increased by almost 25 per cent from 202,000 to 250,000 by 2017/18.

*The average length of time people depended on Ontario Works doubled, going from 19 months to almost three years.

* Service managers identified 36 per cent of recipients have barriers affecting employability, such as homelessness and mental health issues.

* In each of the last five years, Ontario Works only helped 10 to 13 per cent of recipient cases to find jobs, and only one per cent re-enter the workforce in a given month.

* Costs of the Ontario Works program increased more than 55 per cent since the last audit in 2009 – an increase from $1.9 billion to almost $3 billion.

Auditor General Lysyk concluded the ministry oversight of Ontario Works and service managers is “ineffective”. Much of her criticism was directed at programs to find employment.  She also said the ministry is not tracking if service providers are completing financial reassessments on time and if they are investigating fraud tips. On average, fraud investigation is a year behind.

Our government’s reforms are designed to offer a coordinated multi-ministry approach to reduce red tape and unnecessary rules, and support individual action plans to establish self-reliance. The changes will be implemented in a measured and careful way that minimizes disruption for those on the system.

Several priorities will guide the reforms. One priority will be moving people to employment by reducing administration and paperwork so people receiving Ontario Works, as well as frontline staff, can focus on individual action plans that set out a path to health, wellness and preparation to return to work. Local responsiveness and flexibility will help job seekers reach their potential.

The Ontario Disability Support Program will also be redesigned to provide annualized income support with fewer reporting requirements.

A simplified system will focus on improving outcomes by reducing administration, cutting unnecessary rules and restoring service accountability.

Ontario’s social assistance system has not seen significant change in over 10 years. Change will be implemented gradually to update the system so it can better meet the needs of those who need it the most. As a first step, the government will work closely with municipalities to develop a plan to phase in changes, giving them flexibility to meet local needs in the context of their local economies. There will be consultation with First Nations to develop a specific approach for social assistance and employment services.

The province has also launched a web site, to make matching job seekers with businesses easier.

Toby Barrett is the MPP for Haldimand-Norfolk