And you know what? There are lots of good people out there working on this exact problem.
Cohn: With no payoff for politicians, who will reform the system?
It’s a bad time to be on welfare in Ontario. And a tough time to be writing a report on it.
The economy is stalling and the deficit is crippling. The legislature is prorogued and the premier is a lame duck.
Quite a time for Frances Lankin to co-author a landmark report on how to save Ontario’s system of social services from itself.
Lankin’s report was postponed after Dalton McGuinty’s dramatic resignation announcement last week. During her belated Wednesday news conference, Finance Minister Dwight Duncan convened reporters one floor above to announce his own retirement.
Now, a high-profile committee of cabinet ministers set up to deal with her report is distracted by its own power play: Five putative rivals — Eric Hoskins, Kathleen Wynne, Deb Matthews, Laurel Broten and Glen Murray — are mulling over individual bids for the Liberal leadership.
Against that backdrop comes the first major welfare review since the late 1980s, undertaken by Lankin and former StatsCan chief Munir Sheikh. Despite the political distractions, they have an ambitious vision to redesign social services — by reuniting the two big welfare programs created by Mike Harris in the late 1990s.
Back then, the Tories were motivated by segregating the “undeserving poor” (who got general welfare, rebranded as Ontario Works) from the “deserving disabled” who qualified for the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP).
All these years later, the report suggests eliminating these contrived distinctions between the “bad poor” and “good poor” by creating a more coherent and seamless system. Yet the authors have implicitly embraced the once-controversial goal of workfare (where possible).
The idea is to remove barriers to employment for everyone — not just able-bodied people, but also those with obvious physical or hidden mental challenges. With ODSP caseloads growing by 5 per cent a year, and most of the new and returning recipients coping with mental issues, it is no longer sensible or sustainable to hive them off and write them off.
The over-arching theme is that the system is too complex and opaque for anyone to support — recipients, caseworkers, taxpayers or politicians. For all the focus on fraud, welfare is rife with red tape, intrusiveness, contradictions and other costly inefficiencies.
It makes no sense to penalize the poorest of the poor by depleting their life’s savings, making it harder to bounce back when they finally land a job. Hence the need to allow decent “asset limits.”
It’s pointless to claw back the modest sums people may earn from temporary employment if that only deters them from ever getting off welfare. And it is absurd to maintain a federal tax code that helps the disabled only if they have enough taxable income to benefit from a refund.
Unsurprisingly, anti-poverty groups have embraced the report’s call for an immediate increase in base rates. Understandably, they are nervous about the goal of magically getting the disabled back to work. But keeping the system as it is will only hasten its decline.
Some in the corporate sector are stepping up, a credit to Lankin’s persuasive powers honed at the United Way of Toronto. Building a broader base of support may be the best way to rally politicians when they finally get back to work, post-prorogation and post-election.
Business backing might also coax the Progressive Conservatives to keep an open mind (and heart and wallet) should they win power, not least because the report argues that investing in smart reforms now will save money in future. The Tories’ deputy leader, Christine Elliott, is a passionate advocate for the disabled and has a powerful network of her own — not least her husband, federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty.
While I usually resist the temptation to invoke her private hotline to Ottawa, she seems especially well placed to lobby Flaherty to look at the report’s call to redesign federal tax credits to help all disabled people, not merely those with the income to qualify.
Welfare is easily forgotten because there’s not much payoff for politicians to show leadership. The very poor don’t vote in large numbers and don’t donate big money.
Only if Ontarians at large open their eyes to the problem will politicians ever turn their minds to it.