Bowing to community pressure, Wynne government shelves plan to merge welfare for disabled and non-disabled Ontarians.
Anti-poverty and disability-rights activists are claiming victory after the Wynne government’s decision this week not to merge social assistance programs for disabled and non-disabled Ontarians.
“We are very pleased the government has decided not to do this,” said Kyle Vose, who has HIV and is among about 440,000 Ontarians who rely on the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP). Another 450,000 are supported by Ontario Works (OW), the province’s welfare program for everyone else.
“People with disabilities have different needs that are unique to our population,” said Vose, co-chair of the ODSP Action Committee, which opposed the merger.
“The program’s focus on those needs would be lost if we were folded into OW,” the Toronto man said Friday.
Community and Social Services Minister Ted McMeekin made the surprise announcement in the legislature Thursday after activists spent more than a year lobbying against the move.
The merger was one of the key recommendations of the Liberals’ Social Assistance Reform Commission, co-chaired by former NDP cabinet minister Frances Lankin and former Statistics Canada head Munir Sheikh. The commission reported in the fall of 2012.
“Our government has considered the recommendation that both programs be merged, but we believe keeping them intact is the best way forward,” McMeekin said during Question Period Thursday.
Jennefer Laidley of the Income Security Advocacy Centre, a legal aid clinic that supports people on social assistance, welcomed the government’s “clarity” on the issue.
“For months we have been getting mixed messages on the government’s direction on (welfare) reform,” she said. “The minister’s statement is an important pointer.”
Laidley said she would like to see government clarity on other “equally-worrisome” recommendations from the report, such a call to require people on ODSP to participate in work-related activities, as is now the case for those on OW. She is also worried about recommendations to scrap a special dietary supplement and a working supplement for the disabled.
However, the report included many positive reforms activists want the government to adopt, such as an immediate rate hike to $706 per month for single people on OW. The Liberals raised rates by only $20 per month to $626 last fall.
Lankin still thinks the merger was “a worthy concept as part of the full package” of reforms. But the government’s decision to shelve the idea is “not fatal” to the thrust of creating a simpler and more effective system, she said in an interview Friday.
McMeekin said the decision not to merge the programs will allow the government to focus instead on “making the two programs work better at supporting people and helping them find jobs.”
On the administrative front, the government is exploring bulk purchasing and a reloadable debit card for people on social assistance who don’t receive their payments through direct bank deposits. Toronto replaced paper welfare cheques with debit cards in 2012. At the time, annual savings were expected to be about $250 million.