For two Toronto single women on welfare, expected reforms to social assistance in this spring’s provincial budget could prove either promising or problematic.
Both the NDP and the Tories believe people on welfare should be able to earn up to $200 a month before facing clawbacks, as recommended last fall by the government’s social assistance review commission.
For Tracy Mead, 47, who works seven hours a week at a community health clinic, the measure would allow her to keep an additional $121 a month and boost her monthly income to about $960 including tax benefits.
“It would definitely help me buy more food,” says Mead, a member of a provincial group that has been urging Queen’s Park to raise monthly welfare rates by $100 to reduce food bank use.
But if the Liberals scrap the welfare special-diet allowance, as the commission also recommends, quadriplegic Melissa Addison-Webster could lose the $135 a month she uses to buy vitamins and gluten-free food to combat osteoporosis and food allergies. Her monthly income including tax benefits could drop to $1,115.
“For so many people on disability support, there is such an environment of fear around welfare reform,” says the 35-year-old unemployed social worker, who suffered a spinal cord injury in a car accident in 2000. “This worry is only going to exacerbate health concerns.”
In their report last fall, commissioners Frances Lankin and Munir Sheikh called for sweeping changes aimed at helping more people, including the disabled, move into jobs and out of poverty.
The commission was the first serious attempt in almost two decades to improve an $8.3-billion system that, riddled with rules and restrictions, traps too many vulnerable adults and children in poverty, anti-poverty advocates say.
But they say welfare reform should not be funded on the backs of people with medical conditions.
“What kind of society takes from the sick to give to the poor?” says Jennefer Laidley of the Income Security Advocacy Centre, a legal clinic that supports people on social assistance. “You can’t cut your way to a better system.”
The special-diet allowance provides up to $250 a month to help people on welfare with specific medical conditions to buy the food they need to stay healthy.
The $230-million program, which shot up from less than $6 million in 2003, has come under fire for being too lax and open to abuse. One Toronto doctor who signed more than 30,000 application forms over a four-year period was found guilty of professional misconduct for embellishing statements about food allergies.
Government officials say the program has been tightened since the province introduced reforms in 2011 based on a Auditor General’s report, an Ontario Human Rights Tribunal ruling and advice from health experts specializing in nutrition and disease.
Currently, about 140,000 of the 560,000 households on social assistance receive an average of $144 a month under the program.
Advocates say it is no different from paying for prescription drugs for people who need medicine to stay healthy.
But with more than 400,000 Ontario households using food banks, and with welfare payouts falling as much as $12,000 below the poverty line for a single person, the provincial commission argued it would be better to eliminate the benefit and raise rates for everyone so more people can afford to buy healthy food.
Raising rates now, however, is likely not an option for a government grappling with an $11.9-billion deficit. For example, it would cost almost $200 million to implement the commission’s call for an immediate $100-a-month rate increase for single people on Ontario Works, who receive the lowest monthly rate, $606.
Raising asset exemptions and the limit on job earnings would be much less costly.