MCSS finally responds, tells me to look at the big picture.

the below is pretty much a deconstruction attempt of the Ministry of Community and Social Services’s response to inquiries re: status of welfare/ODSP payments, and how changes to those payments are likely to affect us, if they change at all. You can read my take on it, or skip to the letter.

I’ve been involved in trying to open something vaguely resembling a dialogue with the Ontario government for the better part of the last month or so, with what pretty much amounts to three basic questions. What’s with the ripping off of ODSP/welfare recipients, why are you trying to rip us off even more, and when is it expected to change? It took nearly exactly a month for the minister’s printed letter–nice environmental initiative, Madeleine Meilleur–to finally make it into my hands, and I’m not entirely sure it actually answers any of the questions I set out to ask.

For starters, the letter points out in rather broad scope the various planned initiatives/improvements/what have you the government will, eventually, get around to implementing. It includes the review of social services’s current offerings, something the NDP’s supposedly been pushing for for some time. It doesn’t give a timeline though for when we can expect the said review to actually be completed. It includes a sort of blanket promise for more increases here, a little more there, but doesn’t go into any particular details on how this is supposed to help those currently receiving ODSP/welfare payments. As an example, Meilleur takes this stand regarding currently implemented ODSP increases.

In addition, our government’s 2009 Budget included a two per cent increase to social assistance rates, which provides recipients with an additional $40 million in 2009-10 and an extra 100 million in 2010-11. This is the fifth increase made to the rates since 2005, bringing the total increase to 11 per cent.

Impressive, if you’re looking at it from the government’s standpoint. Of course, anything measured in millions of dollars is impressive. Here’s where that logic runs into a brick wall, however. That 100 million dollars over the course of the next fiscal year, by the time it makes it into the hands of the people who’ll actually be using it, amounts to the tiniest of drops in the bucket. Translated to monthly payments, it equates to an extra 20 dollars maximum. Broken down even farther, it equates to an extra cab fare to get yourself to the grocery store, an extra loaf of bread and/or bag of milk upon arival at the grocery store, or an extra month paid on the lowest of electricity rates. It doesn’t translate to all three, but rather just one of those three. And that only if you can manage to come across a halfway decent sale. And I haven’t even bothered to address the fact that the 11 percent increase over the last 5 years is microscopic compared to the amount minimum wage has gone up in the same timeframe–a very impressive, unless you don’t make minimum wage, 43 percent approximately.

Let’s take it a step further, and look at what she’s planning for the upcoming year. Apparently, nothing. The letter makes no mention of any plans within the next 12 months to make any additional changes to welfare/ODSP payments. I would even argue Meilleur doesn’t even take the 30 seconds required to pat herself on the back for the additional 1 percent increase we’ll be seeing to the said payments in November of this year–I wonder why.

So far, we know what they’ve done 5 years ago. We know what they’ve done 2 years ago. She’s even told us what they’ve done a year ago. And, we know none of that has really helped anything altogether too significantly–in that 5 years, the major increases the ministry’s been trumpetting have amounted to an increase, on a per-cheque basis, of 100 dollars. And that’s where her promises/explanations stop. Okay. So, you know it’s not enough–your letter has escentially said as much. I’ve written to tell you what needs to happen in order to make it enough. You’ve written to escentially say “this is what we’ve done”. Wonderful. Now, let’s translate that into conversation. Let’s get this from a self-congratulatory note to open and honest dialogue about how best to help people who, under the current system, are quite literally unable to help themselves. At the moment, no one in the Ontario legislature’s feeling too up to the task. Instead of telling me to look at the big picture, how about we try improving the quality of the smaller one. Because, quite simply, everything looks better when you’re a thousand feet above it.

Instead of measuring efforts in millions of dollars, let’s start measuring it in millions of people. As in, the millions currently forced to live below the poverty line because, for any number of reasons from disability to lack of marketable skills–something that could be corrected if people could aford to, they can’t grab onto something and pull themselves above it. Now, let’s look at ways we can make this system less hostile to those who actually want to help themselves so they might be able to get off social services, therefore freeing up more funds for those who are as yet unable to. Madeleine Meilleur and the MCSS effectively tell me in the letter below to look at the big picture. I would submit, just for curiosity’s sake, she and her people might want to take a closer look at the smaller one.

The full text of the letter is below, including the contact info for the Ministry of Community and Social Services, should anyone else want to help me to encourage this department to sit down at the table and actually talk about the issue, rather than providing us with a recap of what’s already been done.

Ministry of Community and Social Services
Minister’s Office

Ministere des Services sociaux et communautaires
Bureau de la ministre

– Ontario

Hepburn Block Queen’s Park Toronto ON M7A 1E9 Tel.: (416) 325-5225 Fax: (416) 325-3347

Edifice Hepburn
Queen’s Park
Toronto (Ontario) M7A 1E9 Tel. : 416 325-5225
Telac. : 416 325-3347

MAR 25 2010

Mr. James Homuth
(Contact information removed from this version–I hate spam).
Dear Mr. Homuth:

Thank you for your e-mail regarding social assistance. I appreciate the time you have taken to write and I welcome the opportunity to respond.

I am pleased to say our government has developed a Poverty Reduction Strategy that will make a positive difference in people’s lives. We want all Ontarians to have the opportunities and necessary tools to reach their full potential.

As a part of the strategy, we are going to undertake a review of social assistance with the goal of removing barriers and increasing opportunity. The review will seek to better align social assistance with other supports that clients may access, better communicate program rules and ensure programs work collectively. This complements the commitment we have made to work with our municipal partners to simplify and modernize social assistance, better integrate employment services and harmonize housing supports.

A group of highly experienced and committed community leaders, chaired by Gail Nyberg, Executive Director of the Daily Bread Food Bank, has been selected to help facilitate the review. The Social Assistance Review Advisory Council will help shape a review of the social assistance system and suggest ways to better support vulnerable Ontarians as they transition to greater independence. I have asked the council to advise me on:
. possible short-term changes to social assistance rules; and
. a recommended scope and terms of reference for a review of Ontario’s social assistance system.

You can learn more about the council’s work and give them your feedback on my ministry’s website at www.ontario.ca/mcss.

In addition, our government’s 2009 Budget included a two per cent increase to social assistance rates, which provides recipients with an additional $40 million in 2009-10 and an extra 100 million in 2010-11. This is the fifth increase made to the rates since 2005, bringing the total increase to 11 per cent.

In July 2008, our government introduced the Ontario Child Benefit (OCB), providing assistance to all low-income families. This benefit will gradually increase, providing 1.3 million children in low-income families with up to $1,310 per year, when it is fully implemented in 2013. As part of the Poverty Reduction Strategy, we announced an annual increase of$230 million to the OCB, which brings the total to $1.3 billion annually.

Through the OCB, our government is helping to provide vulnerable children with the opportunities they deserve. I am pleased to announce the 2009 Budget accelerated the phase-in of the OCB by two years. As of July 2009, the OCB has been raised to an annual maximum of $1,100, an increase of 83 per cent.

These changes provide a single-parent family, receiving Ontario Works with two children under the age of 12, $1,110 more than in 2008. This represents an increase of$5,670, or 33 per cent from 2003.

Our government has made several other improvements to help social assistance recipients pursue educational opportunities and receive the supports they need to achieve employment goals. We have:
.fully exempted as income, the earnings of social assistance recipients who are enrolled full time, in postsecondary education;
ended the deduction of the National Child Benefit Supplement from social assistance payments;
introduced an exemption rate of 50 per cent on earned income for social assistance recipients who are not enrolled in secondary or postsecondary education to provide a better incentive to work and earn more;
increased the employment start-up benefit to $500 to help recipients pay for job-related expenses;
increased the maximum deduction from earned income for informal child care costs to $600 per month, per child, to provide working parents with other child care options; and extended health benefits for people leaving social assistance for employment.

…..While we know we still have more work to do, our government is committed to making positive changes and I assure you we will keep your suggestions in mind as we move forward.

Sincerely,

Madeleine Meilleur Minister

The newspaper called it. Social assistance programs definitely aren’t being fixed.

The Star provides a rather interesting take on why it is the province of Ontario, and indeed many other governments both in and out of Canada, are usually pretty hesitant to fix systems like welfare, or the only slightly less crippling disability support system. In a nutshell, the province views it as a case for less eligibility. If you’re not working for at least the minimum necessary to live, the article argues, you’re not entitled to at least the minimum to live. This according to the province’s mentality, anyway. Which is a rather interesting notion, when you consider many of these entities now are, supposedly, in place to help people who otherwise can’t meet those minimum standards. Minimum standards that, as one Toronto counsellor’s finding out for himself, aren’t really doing a whole lot of being met.

Toronto Councillor Joe Mihevc’s 11-year-old daughter Catherine looks at her family’s food bank ration of tinned salmon, dried chick peas and peanut butter and wonders what her friends will think when they come to her house for lunch this week.

That was one of the first reactions of 10 prominent Torontonians at the Stop Community Food Centre yesterday, as they embarked on a week of living on what thousands of people on social assistance regularly pick up from local food banks.

That’s not far from the truth. And, on the $572 welfare recipients get–again, this according to the very same “do the math” campaign, food banks are probably going to be a frequent stopping point for a hell of a lot of people. Particularly those who’d rather a roof over their head when they do grab something to eat. And, keep in mind, the $572 is just for a single person. Living in Pembroke, nevermind Toronto, I couldn’t manage to pull off being self-sufficient on that. I can barely manage that on ODSP–hence my two, and soon to be three, letters to the government on the subject.

On ODSP, a single person is entitled to only $460 more than someone on welfare. Which escentially means I can aford to live in subsidised housing and maybe buy escential groceries. It also means, even though I’m not currently in subsidised housing, I won’t flatline financially. It’ll be extremely close on a lot of days, but that’s about it. A welfare recipient, however? It’s either subsidised or nothing for them. There aren’t very many small apartments, particularly in Toronto, for less than $500 a month. If there are, they probably don’t come with anything included, thus negating total expenses still being less than $500 per month. Which doesn’t leave a whole lot of getting by money for pretty much anything else. And that’s the system the province, according to the Star, isn’t very likely to fix any time soon. Unless a whole freaking lot of us find ourselves some blunt objects and a local MPP.

H/T to Zoom, who pointed this campaign out back in February. The fact there’s interest out there from people who aren’t currently benefitting from the system might just go a ways towards helping. Or, at least, it can’t hurt. Now, about those local MPP’s.

The Ontario government tries, very hard, to explain its budget changes. And fails horribly.

At the end of March, we got a good look at Dalton McGuinty’s definition of equality. Which, really, isn’t much of a definition at all. They’ve since come out with a feel-good statement explaining how the cancelation of ODSP’s special diet allowance, which will be replaced by a thinggy to be named later, and the tiny 1 percent increase to ODSP payments is good for us.

Basicly, the statement as it stands now says two things. “People might be misusing it, so we’ll just trash the whole damn thing.”, and, “You don’t need to know what we’re replacing it with. We’ll tell you when we think you’re old enough to hear it.”. All the while, it trumpets the glorious occasion that is the oh so generous increase of 1 percent to monthly payments–the same increase I’ve already scolded them for, not that any of the ruling parties have taken the time to respond to that letter yet. Combine that with the advent of the HST, and what we have here is a failure to live up to your mandate.

On the up side, it does confirm ODSP increases won’t even be in effect until November, also known as 6 months after the HST kicks us in the face. Meanwhile, a much more significant increase to minimum wage is already in effect. Not that that’ll do much to offset the HST either, but it’ll do more than we have to work with. All things considered, I’d much rather be employed. But, since that’s not in my immediate future, I’ll entertain myself by calling out the government on a semi-weekly basis. If not on the blog, then certainly in email. And, very likely, both. And that’s the bright side. Who wants to play beat the premier?

My second open letter to Ontario members of parliament.

Two weeks ago, I sent the first of my letters to Ontario’s members of parliament. Specificly, I emailed the premier, the minister of community and social services, my local conservative member of parliament, and the leaders of both the conservatives and the NDP. I went into quite a bit of detail on the specifics of our problems with the way current disability arangements are set up. Surprisingly enough, the best response came from an unlikely source–the NDP, who actually went so far as to tell me roughly what they’d do differently were they in government. I picked it apart yesterday. There was even less to pick apart from the liberals, who basicly said “So noted.”, or the conservatives, who said absolutely nothing. So, I fired off this one just this morning.

Subject: Further to my letter (Disability Does Not Equal Poverty – 3/12/2010)

Honourable members,

On March 12 of this year, I wrote a letter to each and every one of you, and challenged you to establish a dialogue as to what can be done to address the currently unacceptable inequality between those of us living on disability support and those of us able to land at least minimum wage employment. In the time that has past since that letter, I have received what at best can be described as a minimalistic response. Since our brief exchange re: Ontario disability Support Program, the provincial budget was released, and appropriately criticised for its shortcomings in this area.

As stated in my original letter, on March 31 of this year, the seventh in a string of increases will be applied to the minimum wage, effective immediately. That increase, an addition of 75 cents per hour, amounts to a total of approximately 27 dollars more based upon a 37-hour work week, or 111 dollars extra per month. In contrast, the Ontario Disability Support Program is to see its monthly distribution to recipients increased by a far less than encouraging 1 percent, or 10 dollars extra, as of the fall of this year.

This only serves to further widen, not narrow, the gap between Ontario’s disabled population and those able enough to find at least a minimal amount of work. It additionally runs the risk of further raising the poverty line, putting it that much farther out of the reach of those of us under these restrictions.

As I have done in my previous letter, I would like to take the opportunity to encourage all parties to establish a dialogue in order to address an obvious underfunding of services crutial to many of Ontario’s disabled and their ability to live independantly while at the same time attempting to find work, so as to remove themselves from the need for further ODSP services. Credit should be given, at least in part, to the leader of the NDP, who has at the very least indicated the willingness to explain what if any action they would be willing to initiate were they given the opportunity to govern. I had hoped to see a similar response from Ontario’s liberal party, however I was instead greeted by a response which, summarized, amounted to little more than “We’ll take it under advisement.”. I received less than that from Ontario’s conservative party, including Pembroke and area’s local member of provincial parliament. This demonstrates to me an unwillingness by the two parties in question to discuss the issue of what amounts to financial handycapping, despite evidence indicating the problem not only exists but is worsening. This will not by any means correct the problem as it stands now.

Once again, I would encourage extensive conversation regarding this issue, which will hopefully lead to equally extensive measures in rectifying the financial situation faced by disabled individuals, who are quite capable of working but simply have not been hired, across the province. I would be more than willing to have this conversation with anyone with an interest, and in so doing, provide them with the information necessary to obtaining a closer look at the precise limitations placed on Ontario’s disabled due to the present situation. This includes, but is not limited to, a glaring disconnect in the realistic financial requirements of a disabled individual needing to provide shelter for him/herself and the allowance for same provided under the Ontario Disability Support Program.

This is a conversation that absolutely must happen, most especially in order to minimize if not negate completely the dependence on other social systems, such as subsidized housing, which are already under significant strain (see: subsidized housing waiting list in Renfrew county, currently 2-4 years, or subsidized housing waiting list, Ottawa and area, currently 4-8 years). Only through extensive dialogue can problems such as this be addressed, and ultimately solved. I would therefore again encourage everyone named in this letter to become actively involved in this dialogue. Failure to address an issue of this magnitude will amount to a failure to provide affordable living for all Ontarions, and is unacceptable at the absolute minimum. I look forward to seeing the beginning of a hopefully educational dialogue on the ODSP issue in the near future. Thank you in advance for your time, and I will appreciate your prompt feedback concerning the matter in question.

Sincerely,
James Homuth
Petawawa Ontario
(Contact info removed from this version–I hate spam)

It’s actually quite sad that the NDP, who I have very little really in common with, gets this more than the other two appear to so far. There’s a large as hell problem cropping up here. Well, okay, it’s been cropping up since at least as long as I’ve been legally old enough to actually be affected by it. Sad part is, for at least that long, no one’s really been open to the idea of talking about it. Kind of like it’s one of those things you kind of toss onto the back burner in the hopes some seemingly larger problem will come up and divert attention away from it. Then, once that’s done, you can safely tuck it under the nearest piece of carpet or something and forget about it. It’s worked for this long–folks have been more than willing to forget about it. Now, let’s see if we can try and convince some of these folks that actually talking about it is the better way to go. Or, at the very least, I’ll just keep periodically bouncing something off their mailboxes. Sooner or later, someone’ll get tired of seeing my name show up. Tired enough to talk about it? Could happen.

Deconstructing the NDP’s response to my open letter.

So far, the only other person to respond to my email thus far is the NDP. Or rather, the NDP leader’s corespondence officer. Who, apparently, didn’t quite get all her information accurate. But, one step at a time. What does miss Andrea’s corespondence officer have to say?

Dear Mr. Homuth,

Thank you for your email to Andrea Horwath expressing your views concerning Social Assistance.

Ontario’s New Democrats have called the McGuinty government to task many times over the past six years on its failure to provide adequate supports to Ontario’s most vulnerable people. Sadly, not much has changed for our poorest people. The promised review of social assistance rates has not yet occurred, tens of thousands languish on waiting lists for affordable housing and we have yet to see a significant number of public child care spaces increase.

Not overly concerned with childcare spaces over here, but I’ll ignore that. Clearly, not much has changed. Scream a little louder, please?

The NDP continues to be vocal in the Legislature and across Ontario in an effort to force this government to take real action to alleviate poverty.

I’d be interested to see the definition of “real action” according to all three parties. But I’ll settle for the NDP’s definition. Particularly since my own local, conservative MPP has yet to respond, nevermind his party leader.

That’s why the NDP called for the following amendments to Bill 152:

Adding as a goal to work for a poverty-free Ontario

Recognizing the right of all Ontarians to an adequate income, decent housing, healthy food, and fair paid employment

Require the creation of a Poverty Reduction Commission (including people living in poverty and other key stakeholders) to independently report on the government’s progress in reducing poverty each year

Require that the Minister reports to the legislature on progress each year

Including adequate funding for proper consultation

Require that poverty reduction strategies:

address all people living in poverty – not just one sub-group
address income support, labour market participation, food access, affordable housing and other causes of poverty
Set a long term poverty reduction target that goes further than 25% in five years

As a health care professional, you know that poverty is the root cause of many serious health problems and we thank you very much for taking the time to write and for your hard work and support.

Healthcare professional? I’m an ODSP recipient. Big difference.

Please visit www.ontariondp.com to learn more about how the NDP Caucus is fighting for Ontarians in our communities and at Queen’s Park.

Sincerely,

Ezia Cervoni,

Leader’s Correspondence Officer

I don’t want to visit a website to learn what you’re planning to do. Nor do I want to visit the government’s website to learn what they want to do. I want two-way dialogue here. The ruling parties have the money. Or, at least, the ministries overseen by the said parties have the money. We, meaning the people receiving said money, know where it needs to be put and in what quantity. All that has to happen is the conversation. One of us is making that attempt. Let’s see how far it goes.

My now open letter to Ontario’s government, and the premier’s response.

I’ve mentioned already that if you’re on disability in Ontario, you’re almost getting the shaft so far as actual help to do anything without needing to rely on help, financial or otherwise, from friends/family/whatever. In this letter, sent to Ontario’s ruling parties, I mentioned it to them in far more simple terms. So far, response has been rather minimal.

Subject: Disability Does Not Equal Poverty

Honourable members,

I write you today to bring to your attention what I had hoped initially might have been a grave oversight in the administration of the Ontario Disability Support program (ODSP). Presently, minimum wage in Ontario is scheduled to undergo a 75 cent increase on the 31st of March. This would be the seventh such minimum wage increase since the McGuinty government took office in 2004, and would bring the wage to $10.25 per hour–a nearly 43 percent increase in a 6-year period. In the same length of time, however, ODSP payments have seen an increase of slightly more than 100 dollars, or approximately 10.5 percent.

These statistics constitute a grose imbalance between those Ontarions restricted in their employment options due to a disability and those capable of filling any minimum wage position. Additionally, it strips many of the disabled of their independence by forcing them to rely on the support and shelter of family/friends due to the inability to aford living on their own. The difference, which is the difference in some cases between poverty and independence, is 500 dollars based on a standard 37.5-hour work week. A disabled individual living on the current level of ODSP will most likely not continue to remain self-sufficient based on current cost of living trends.

I speak on this matter as one of the said disabled individuals affected by the imbalance between current established minimums and those available to the disabled via the ODSP. Living presently in Petawawa, after being forced to leave Ottawa due to my inability to aford to remain, I now reside in an apartment who’s rent is still approximately $100 above the current allowance for shelter of $465–presently, it is the lowest rent available to me without the assistance of subsidised housing. The rent does not include heat and/or electricity, which brings total expenses paid well above $100 over the allowance for basic shelter. Transportation costs then must come out of my allowance for food/clothing, along with payment of necessary expenses not currently considered necessary under the ODSP (E.G. telephone). As Pembroke/Petawawa does not have a public transit system, transportation costs will vary depending on several conditions including: where i’m going, how far away, how frequently, and whether by family or friends’ vehicles or local taxi services. When expenses are finally alocated to groceries, clothing etc, it would be an understatement to say the remainder of current ODSP payments are spread a little thin.

I find it less than acceptable that able-bodied individuals with little to know limitations applied to their ability to work are able to remain virtually entirely self-sufficient, whereas the disabled who are unable to occupy a position at, for example, McDonalds for the said minimum wage are forced to depend on the support of others in order to establish a degree of independence. Furthermore, I find it even less acceptable that over the past 6 years under this government, the gap between disabled and non-disabled Ontarions has only widened. The disabled do not get discounts on rent, nor do we get a similar discount on electricity, groceries, transportation, or any other item easily aforded by those individuals earning minimum wage. And yet we are expected to pay equal prices for equal services on significantly less income. Disability should not equate to poverty, however under the current system as it stands right now, that is precisely what it equates to. If the minimum wage was adjusted in order to allow Ontarions to maintain the ability to cope with the increase in cost of living and inflation, payments via ODSP should likewise see a similar increase. A failure to do so should be seen as a failure to provide afordable living for the people of Ontario.

I would be more than happy to have this conversation in a more direct manner with each one of you, should you be so inclined, and provide you with any further information that might assist you in determining the entirety of this issue. If you would like to discuss this matter further, my contact information is below. I will also include for your reading pleasure a link to a website in which many non-disabled individuals not only agree with me, but have performed their own research based on information publicly available to determine for themselves that current support levels are insufficient. Thank you for reading, and I hope we can speak further on this topic.

Additional Information: http://www.knitnut.net/2010/02/do-the-math/

Sincerely,
James Homuth
Petawawa, Ontario
(contact information removed from this version–I hate spam)

It took a couple days, but Dalton McGuinty did eventually get back to me. Or, rather, one of his slightly modified form letters got back to me.

Subject: An e-mail from the Premier of Ontario

Thanks for your online message about the Ontario Disability Support Program. I appreciate your having taken the time to share your valued feedback with me.

Our government remains committed to improving the quality of life for all Ontarians. I note that you have also sent a copy of your e-mail to my colleague the Honourable Madeleine Meilleur, Minister of Community and Social Services. I trust that the minister will take your views into careful consideration.

Thanks again for contacting me. Please accept my best wishes.

Dalton McGuinty
Premier of Ontario

c: The Honourable Madeleine Meilleur

While he noticed I sent a copy to his minister of social services, he didn’t exactly prod her in the rear end to get back to me. I’m still waiting, Dalton. In the meantime, let’s talk about that extra $10 you’re giving me in about 8 months. Specificly, let’s make it $500, and effective next month. Deal? Didn’t think so.