When it comes to social assistance policy in Ontario, it's sometimes hard to know the difference between helping and hurting.
That's the problem many activists are having in the wake of the release late last month of the long-awaited report Brighter Prospects: Transforming Social Assistance In Ontario.
In the weeks since then, many on poverty's front lines have been busy sorting through the hundred-odd proposals in the 200-page report, trying to separate out the supportable items amid widespread concern that equality issues could get buried in the Liberal leadership transition.
Not all those attuned to the issues have the same take on the document, though the general feeling is that in the current social assistance mess, any change is better than none.
According to the Income Security Advocacy Centre's policy analyst Jennifer Laidley, who generally welcomes the report, groups have already had initial meetings with Minister John Milloy and opposition parties to push what they see as the more acceptable parts of the agenda forward.
Two weeks ago, the ODSP Action Coalition (whose members are Ontario Disability Support recipients) held a general meeting via conference call to discuss the proposals.
According to the group's Nancy Vander Plaats, "there was a general reaction of fear, frustration and great disappointment. The fact that there was no recommendation to provide an adequate amount of income for ODSP recipients was extremely upsetting."
Indeed, Brighter Prosects is a mixed bag, and its reception is coloured by that better-than-nothing attitude. Says NDP Community and Social Services critic Cheri DiNovo, "Poverty has risen to unprecedented heights, cuts to social assistance programs like the Community Start Up and Maintenance Benefit are an ongoing theme, and food bank usage has gone up. Frankly, things are so bad that anything is better than the current situation."
On the positive front, the report proposes a "culture shift" to alter the punitive nature of welfare, the merging of Ontario Works (OW) and Ontario Disability Support (ODSP), an OW (welfare) hike of $100 a month, an allowable-income raise to $200 a month and the extension of child and health benefits to all on low incomes.
But then there are controversial recommendations like the elimination of the special diet allowance (SDA) worth up to $250 a month for those with medical conditions. Some have calculated that ODSP recipients could find their total income actually lowered by this cut.
And many are disturbed by the review's preoccupation with forcing those with disabilities to work, and its failure to offer up significant rate increases. (Single people on ODSP currently receive $1,000 a month, and single adults on welfare $600).
"People in poverty already have poor nutritional habits because they can't afford to eat properly,'' says Laidley. "Those who use the SDA money are not only living under the poverty line, but also need money to pay for their medical conditions. [Eliminating it] will definitely cause frustration, anxiety and difficulty," she says.
She also questions the push to employment so fundamental to Brighter Prospects. "People on social assistance, disabled or not, got there because of issues in the past," she says. "Most have faced severe trauma such as divorce, violence and loss of support from family and friends. It's imperative that they have time to process the trauma. It's not a fun thing to be on welfare and have your worker demand that you start looking for work."
Members of the very grassroots ACORN see the job focus in stark terms. Says Curtis Bulatovich, "At the root, it's an extension of Harris-era workfare. We will see people with severe disabilities forced to work."
There's also a strong feeling that the employment compulsion detracts from already scarce attention to housing supports. Stability, says Toby Mullally, manager of the street survivors program at Central Neighbourhood House, doesn't necessarily come from employment.
"It is not the answer for everyone, and a huge number of people are in and out of jobs that are stressful, difficult and wearing." Rather, he says self-reliance is a function of reliable and decent housing.
"The reality is that people pay a premium to live in crappy apartments or rooms, so it's a lot harder for them to find work. If social assistance paid for rent as it actually is, people would have stability and be much more likely to become independent," he says.