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A Path to Financial Freedom

Editor's Note: Mike Yale, who is quoted below, is a member of AEBC's Toronto, Ontario, Chapter.

Cheryl Duggan buys her clothes on half-price days at Goodwill stores. She chooses only black "because black matches black and I don't want to look poor." Of her credentials, she says she has a BA in art history from the University of Toronto plus "a master's in advocacy and a PhD in survival," the latter two conferred by her experience eking out an existence on the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP).

In the ten years since the program was introduced by the government of Mike Harris, report after report has exposed it as deeply flawed, unnecessarily complex and littered with barriers that suck the life out of those forced to rely on it.

"It takes away all your dignity," says Duggan, who copes with a rare combination of two movement disorders and has been working on a photo/voice project chronicling what poverty means to individuals. "It just keeps us down."

Now a province-wide coalition including staff at government agencies, lawyers, community groups and disabled people has combed through the evidence of previous reports to map out an urgent plan for change.

Among other things, it would like to see the next provincial budget introduce a significant rise in support rates. It also wants Queen's Park to create an independent board, including representatives from the disabled community, to develop "rational and just criteria" for establishing future rates.

The ODSP Action Coalition looked at 17 reports by service providers, policy analysts, client groups and academics between 2001 and 2007. In a submission to the Ontario Cabinet Committee on Poverty Reduction, it identifies 48 systemic barriers affecting six areas of ODSP. They include everything from an unnecessarily complicated application process and punishingly low rates to rules applied arbitrarily and policies that penalize people who try to get jobs.

It also culls recommendations for solutions and combines them in its own report, titled, "If It's Still Broke, Fix It."

Surely, it's time for Queen's Park to do just that.

The payments offered by ODSP condemn disabled people to "a life sentence of poverty," the coalition says.

The latest StatsCan poverty line, or low-income cut-off, for a single person in a major city is $17,570 a year or about $1,460 a month. The top allowance a single person on ODSP can get is $11,988 a year or $999 a month. Most get far less.

Of that, a maximum of $445 can be spent on shelter, while Canada Mortgage and Housing puts the average cost of a bachelor at $752 in Toronto, where half the people on ODSP live.

When all the numbers are translated into constant dollars, the figures are indeed shocking.

Over the 15 years between 2007 and 1992 (the base year used by Statistics Canada to calculate its low-income cut-off), the income of a single person relying on disability support has dropped 19 percent in real terms, the coalition notes. That's in spite of the 7 per cent in ODSP increases announced since the Liberals came to power.

It would take a 46 percent increase in ODSP rates just to bring that person up to the poverty line, says Jennefer Laidley, research and policy analyst at the Income Security Advocacy Centre, a member of the coalition. But even that doesn't reflect the real deficit, Laidley notes, because being disabled involves extra costs for assistive devices and supplies not covered by the health-care system.

Disability also narrows where you can shop, says Sharon Dever, chair of the action coalition's Toronto division. Dever, who uses an electric scooter, says she can't get past the posts designed to prevent shopping cart theft at her local Food Basics and No Frills stores, so she has to shop where prices are higher.

"With a little money, people have choices," says Mike Yale, co-chair of the action coalition. "You can shop for healthy food, buy clothes that will help you get a job. How does the community benefit from someone sitting at home impoverished and isolated?"

"Incentives should be built in to help people participate in their communities and find work," Duggan agrees. "Right now, if you're on ODSP an earn a dollar, they take 50 cents."

The coalition believes no earned income should be deducted from ODSP until recipients can bring themselves up to the poverty line.

A spokesperson for Social Services Minister Madeleine Meilleur says the department is working on making the program more efficient but changes in rates will depend on the next provincial budget.

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Reprinted from the Toronto Star, August 9, 2008, courtesy of Torstar Syndication Services.