Time to fix a broken social services system

By MPP Toby Barrett
We’ve been waiting four years for recommendations on how to fix Ontario’s broken social services system. Last week the Ontario Social Service Review Commission marked the end of two years of input, meetings, deliberations and discussion papers, by presenting its final report, Brighter Prospects: Transforming Social Assistance in Ontario. The report charts a new course for social assistance in the province and advocates putting people back to work.

Commissioners Frances Lankin and Munir Sheikh laid out 108 recommendations designed to create a more stream-lined approach. The report recommends moving toward a single, integrated social assistance program delivered at the local level, meaning Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) would be replaced with one program that supports all social assistance recipients. Currently, Ontario Works is delivered by municipalities and First Nations, while the province delivers ODSP.

While the idea of merging Ontario Works and ODSP will certainly stir debate, many are applauding the real and actionable common sense recommendations to better reintegrate assistance recipients back into the workforce.

Today there are 477,339 individuals on Ontario Works. Similarly, 415,338 rely on ODSP, which continues to grow at an unsustainable rate of five per cent each year.

Work, not dependency, is the best way to help those caught in the social assistance cycle. As Lankin said: “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.”

Another good start is allowing recipients, both Ontario Works and ODSP, to keep more of the money they are able to earn, and decreasing clawbacks that work as a disincentive to employment. The commission’s report recalls the approach I introduced in spring 2010 with Bill 23, Enhancing the Ability of Income Support

Recipients to be Financially Independent. Currently, monies earned are clawed back by 50 per cent. The new model would see recipients retaining the first $200 of earnings before the clawback would kick in.

We must explore doing things differently – contracting out and involving more from the private sector. I feel it’s vital Ontario begin using a social impact bond strategy to improve the performance of programs and get the most out of taxpayers’ dollars. The Drummond Report also recommended Ontario undertake a pilot project using social impact bonds. In short, private investors and/or foundations pay the cost of a new program in its infancy, and the government later repays the investors so long as the program meets its goals. If the program happens to fail, taxpayers pay nothing. I will continue to examine this model as I put the finishing touches on some of my proposals — I welcome your feedback.

Clearly, there is a need for transformation in which government must make decisions with respect to the allocation of scarce budget resources among administration, compensation of workers and monetary transfers to recipients, all the while fostering individual responsibility in as many Ontarians as possible.

It is high time we fix Ontario’s broken social assistance program because the costs of inaction are far too high.