Is the broken ODSP system finally hitting the mainstream?

If you’ve spent any time on the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP), or its partner program for the mostly non-disabled (Ontario Works), you’ve very quickly become aware of two rather important–and probably unsurprising–problems. Problem the first: the Ontario Disability Support Program has a disability. And problem the second: Ontario Works, rather, doesn’t.

Randall Denley, in a Jan. 5 column, argues that, in addressing the social assistance system, “The first thing is to get the welfare changes to one side and focus on the disability income shortfall.” However, the social assistance rates he cites suggest his conclusion is wrong.

As he puts it, “Under the optimistically named Ontario Works welfare program, the most a single person gets is $706 a month. People with disabilities get a lordly $1,138.” Sure, $1,138 is too low, but should we focus on those getting that amount rather than on those getting $706?

We got to the size of the gap between the two programs when Mike Harris, premier at the time, cut Ontario Works rates by 21.6 per cent. Since the Liberals have been in government provincially, they have only increased the dollar gap by making increases for the two programs on a percentage basis (with a minor exception: when Ted McMeekin was the minister in charge, he added a small amount to benefits for singles on Ontario Works).

Denley also buys the line peddled by Ontario governments of all stripes – Liberal, Conservative and NDP – that Ontario Works (OW) is a program for people temporarily in need of financial support. But for the 2014-15 fiscal year, the average time on OW was 27 months. Half were on it for more than 15 months. When I was a welfare supervisor in Ottawa in the 1990s, I saw many files going back 10 years. I even saw some going back 20 and 25 years. Short-term, my eye.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? It should. The systems are interchangeable In one way, and one way only. Neither system is sufficient to allow a person to be entirely independent, let alone survive long enough to actually find away to get themselves off that system. The key difference? ODSP tries–and fails–just a little bit harder.

I’ve made mention of the gap between the two systems before. I’ve said they both needed a good solid fixing before. But now, I’m not the only one who’s at least paying lip service to the problems. Several places in Ontario are now tossing about the idea of introducing a basic income to solve most of the problems caused by the two systems, as well as a few the two systems aren’t designed to either cause or deal with. No one seems to have any idea the form this pilot project will take, if it takes any form at all, but there are no shortages of ideas or things people would like to see.

The Green Wood Coalition’s paper on a Basic Income Guarantee in Ontario was to be presented to a Social Services Ministry consultation event in Cobourg Wednesday evening.

Written by spokesperson David Sheffield, who also was scheduled to make an oral presentation, it supports Senator Hugh Segal’s recommendation that “the Government of Ontario immediately raise the Ontario Works rate for a single individual to $1,320 per month and raise ODSP rates by at least $500 per month.”

At this time, a single person on Ontario Works gets $720 monthly (and this just went up) and someone on the Ontario Disability Support Program typically gets just under $1,200, Sheffield said in an interview prior to his presentation.

“It is the position of Green Wood Coalition that eliminating poverty is an urgent health, human rights and social justice issue that requires action on the part of the municipal, provincial and federal governments. As a street-level, charitable organization that uses a community model of caring to walk alongside people living with poverty, mental illness, addiction and other disability, in Port Hope, Green Wood Coalition has observed, first hand, the detrimental effects of poverty on individuals and families.

Of course, what isn’t mentioned in this or any of the other articles is that about $500 is very close to the difference between what a person on ODSP gets now and Ontario’s current minimum wage–a wage that was just increased this year because, according to Ontario’s government, living costs too much. They’re right, and if they implement something even remotely like what’s being discussed here, that will put a very large dent in a lot of people’s problems. Taking care of the lower classes is supposed to be the new lliberal thing these days, at least if Ontario’s liberals take their marching orders from our new Prime Minister (he’s borrowing some of her staff, so they ought to), and this would go a few miles towards handling that. Which is why I’m surprised this government’s even talking about it, given they’ve been rather not at all interested in doing anything about it before now.

Equally surprising is the fact this is getting media attention. It should, of course, but lack of interest from the people who matter means not a whole lot for the media to cover, unless they’d like to cover a protest that doesn’t end up accomplishing much. It’s a very nice change, and if it keeps the issue from being swept under the rug as previous incarnations of this same government have also been known to do, I’ll drink a shot of cheap alcohol in their honour–I can’t afford anything with actual class, sorry.

I’m trying not to be too hopeful here, but initial signs are that ODSP’s broken might actually be trying its best to enter the mainstream. If it gets there, it’s about damned time. If it stays there, amazing. And if it fixes things, there will be no one happier than me–yes, despite the fact I’m still trying my best to get the hell off this program as quickly as humanly possible. So I’ll thank the government kindly if they don’t break everything in the attempt. That would be just a little bit awesome. Now, let’s see if they’re up to it.

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