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Response to "Approaches For Reform"

Date: 
Monday, March 19, 2012

A Brief Submitted To: The Commission for the Review of Social Assistance in Ontario

A Brief Submitted By:
The Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians / L'Alliance pour l'Égalité des Personnes Aveugles du Canada (AEBC)
Toronto Chapter
602 - 1360 York Mils Road
Toronto, ON M3A 2A2
Tel: 416-391-1169

March 2012

Introduction

The AEBC submitted a Brief to the Commission during the first phase of your consultation, entitled "Strengthening Social Assistance in Ontario." We participate actively in the ODSP Action Coalition, and commend them on their extensive and thorough papers which they have submitted. Thus, rather than reiterating much of what is contained in their response to this paper, we will focus on a number of fundamental questions in your second discussion paper, "Approaches for Reform." The key questions we are focusing on here will also take into account the report of the Drummond Commission.

Your paper hints at a number of possible recommendations, some of which sound interesting and potentially useful, but, the paper does not provide enough detail to enable us to determine if we can support them or not. Thus we recommend:

Recommendation 1: There should be no fundamental changes to ODSP without first providing clear proposals with details about how the changes would affect people, and then there must be a real process of consultation which includes meaningful participation from people with lived experience of social assistance and other rights holder organizations of consumers with various disabilities.

Redrafting Your Focus

Our most important message is to remind you that the Social Assistance Reform Commission was developed as a result of the Poverty Reduction Act, 2009, legislation that was unanimously passed by all three political parties of the Legislature. The Poverty Reduction Act arose as a part of the province’s overall poverty reduction strategy. Your second paper, however, seems to focus much more on employment rather than improving the income situation of social assistance recipients, and has already created great fear in our community that a number of your final recommendations will lead to loss of income, creating added stress, leading to worsening of physical and mental health for people with disabilities.

Recommendation 2: The AEBC therefore recommends that your Final Report should refocus on lifting people out of poverty as the primary focus, not deficit reduction or pressuring current recipients to pursue employment, treatment or rehabilitation.

Recommendation 3: There should not be any cuts to the income of anyone on ODSP or OW as a result of any recommendations from the Commission

The Deficit

Persons with disabilities did not cause the current deficit or the recent recession, and our lives must not be further worsened by deficit reduction policies that lead to a reduction of needed programs and supports to the disabled community. Rather, the deficit resulted from unconscionable greed of banks and other private sector companies, and a series of tax cuts to business and the extremely wealthy that have reduced government revenue and jeopardize the provision of needed, quality public services.

In times like these, our community is often told that our time will come and that we must wait, but we must ask again, when will our time come, as the so-called promise of "trickle down economics" has so desperately failed to assist our community. Today, we are tired of waiting, as our reality remains that far too many persons with disabilities are forced to subsist in chronic poverty on the sidelines. It is time we were assisted in meaningful ways to join the mainstream of Ontario society.

Recommendation 4: The AEBC recommends the Ontario Government develop additional revenue through a more progressive tax system so it will have the needed resources to ensure the provision of quality public services, including a more adequate level of income to social assistance recipients.

Fundamental Flaws

Your paper states:

The government has identified employment as a key route for individuals and families to escape poverty. We agree that one of the best ways to help people to move out of poverty is to help them find work.

This change in focus to employment, however, demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding of both the reality of today's world of work, and the lived experiences of far too many persons with disabilities. We submit this has resulted in part from the lack of meaningful inclusion of persons with lived experiences at every stage of your work.

Encouraging a significant number of current recipients to seek employment must be based on a rich and diverse labour market that is both welcoming and readily available to all persons, regardless of barriers. We wish this kind of positive climate existed, but sadly it does not! Expecting a considerable number of current recipients to suddenly enter the labour market simply flies in the face of the lived experiences of so many persons with disabilities. Despite the work of numerous organizations over many years, a significant number of old employment barriers remain, and some new ones are being created. As a result, the disabled community remains one of the most unemployed and under employed segments of our entire country. While tinkerings may again assist some individuals and that's useful to those persons, small changes in the delivery of employment programs are unlikely to change our collective reality.

A significantly greater commitment to the employment of persons with disabilities, from both public and private sectors must be obtained.

Barriers, both attitudinal and systemic, and disincentives like the current vicious claw back on part-time earnings must be reviewed and removed.

Recommendation 5: The Ontario Government, in consultation with recipients and other rights holder consumer organizations "of" persons with disabilities, must develop new programs to assist Ontarians with disabilities to join the paid labour market.

Recommendation 6: The current level of "claw back" on earnings represents a significant disincentive to the search for employment. The AEBC recommends the first $500 a month in earnings be exempt from the claw back, as is the case in BC.

Despite the Ontario Human Rights Commission's long standing clear requirement to accommodate persons with a disability short of undue hardship, today, human rights commissions all across Canada continue to receive tremendous numbers of complaints from the disability community, most on the ground of discrimination in employment. This clearly demonstrates existing programs may help some, but they have failed woefully to address successfully our overall situation, and your final Report must point out and address our reality.

Recommendation 7: The Ontario Human Rights Commission must launch more broadly based systemic cases and do a better job of publicizing the requirements of the Code, including the Duty to Accommodate short of undue hardship.

The world of work has changed dramatically over the past 20 years. Fewer and fewer workers have full-time, permanent jobs with benefits; the fast pace changes in technology often create new barriers; and this reality has only further hurt our community.

While improving the delivery of employment-related services may assist some to join the labour market, and this would provide a worthwhile outcome for those individuals, we again strongly challenge the notion that a significant number of jobs is out there just waiting to be filled by ODSP recipients. Your paper does not provide a blueprint on how you believe we can move from the current level of unemployment to a new era where a significantly higher number of persons with disibilities are employed.

Recommendation 8: Social assistance recipients must not be pressured or forced to seek employment, treatment, rehabilitation or participate in training or volunteer activities as a condition of receiving benefits.

The Plight of Low Income Workers

Why does the Commission continue to pit the interests of social assistance recipients against those of the working poor in their discussion on an “appropriate benefit structure”? This "divide and conquer" approach of pitting the interests of the “deserving” poor (low wage workers) against the “undeserving” poor (social assistance recipients) only further consigns both groups to ongoing poverty. It is time to stop the trend from employers to reduce wages and benefit s, and raise all low income Ontarians.

Recommendation 9: The AEBC therefore recommends that both social assistance rates and the provincial minimum wage be raised so that all Ontarians will share more in the benefits of Ontario society.

A Clear Vision for the Future

Recipients have an expectation that your Review will lead to a strategy that focuses on poverty reduction in Ontario. It must articulate a clear vision for improving the delivery of social assistance within the framework of an overall poverty reduction strategy. This must include increasing the current level of benefits. Such a vision has already been expressed by government in its adoption of poverty reduction as a goal of provincial social policy, and echoed in the Commission’s stated intention of creating “a 21st century income security system”. This vision of poverty reduction – with its underlying principles of recognizing diversity through creating equity, treating people with dignity and respect, and enhancing social and economic inclusion – would be a huge step forward.

Without such a clear strategy, the Commission’s current options could be used to reduce the incomes of people with disabilities, eliminate special benefits, and make the incomes of people with disabilities conditional on job searches, in a labour market that does not welcome nor accommodate their needs. Such moves would only further increase the vulnerability and poverty of Ontario’s most disadvantaged communities.

The end.

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