Ontario’s new Progressive Conservative government is rolling back social-assistance changes put in place by the former Liberal government, announcing reductions to planned increases in rates and the cancellation of a pilot project to establish a basic income for recipients.
And in unveiling those moves, Ontario Social Services Minister Lisa MacLeod said she has asked the province’s Auditor-General to investigate “hundreds of millions of dollars” in fraud in social-assistance payments.
The Ford government has given itself until early November to remake Ontario’s social-assistance system, Ms. MacLeod said on Tuesday afternoon, calling the current system too disjointed and expensive.
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She blamed the former Liberal government for creating an assistance system that spent money on “handouts that actually do little if anything to break the cycle of poverty.” Ms. MacLeod said the Ford government’s new assistance program would be focused on jobs.
“Our plan will help get people back to work and help them keep working. It will support people with disabilities to work when they are able,” she said, adding that the planned changes would “get them on their feet and restore dignity in their lives.”
“Let me be clear: the best social program is a job," she said.
In a pre-election budget earlier this year, former Premier Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals approved annual increases of 3 per cent over the next three years to the two largest programs in Ontario’s social safety net, Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support Program, which now have a combined budget of $8.7-billion. Nearly a million people use the two systems and someone on Ontario Works is currently entitled to a maximum of $721 a month.
Ms. MacLeod said that although the planned hikes were cancelled, the government would allow a 1.5-per-cent increase to the two programs later this year. The minister would not say how much the move was expected to save.
The government also announced that it would wind down Ontario’s basic income pilot project, which was meant to provide money to 4,000 low-income people in Hamilton, Thunder Bay and Lindsay for three years. Ms. MacLeod said she didn’t yet have details on how or when the project would end.
The basic income project, which cost $50-million annually, provided people with the means to test whether extra money would improve their job prospects and quality of life. One of Ms. Wynne’s marquee programs when she went to the polls earlier this year, the idea was to give the province’s working poor, unemployed and homeless residents an income to pay for their food and housing needs. A single person could receive up to $16,989 a year and a couple could get up to $24,027 annually.
“What we have seen is that the program is not doing what it was intended to do,” Ms. MacLeod said. She did not provide information to bolster her claim.
“There’s no basis I know of to make that judgement,” said Elaine Power, an associate professor at Queen’s University who co-founded a group in Kingston to advocate for a basic income.
“It’s appalling that the government wouldn’t see the pilot through; it’s only got another year and a half. The plan was to spend $50-million annually. That’s peanuts compared to what poverty costs the health system,” she said.
Ms. Power was troubled because Mr. Ford promised during the campaign not to cancel the pilot project. The Premier also didn’t include any changes to social assistance rates in his party’s platform.
The Official Opposition attacked the move, warning that it would send more people into homelessness.
“Doug Ford’s decision to slash the meager increases to social assistance is appalling, it drags Ontario backwards and it pushes those already at a disadvantage even deeper into poverty,” NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said in a statement.
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Andy Letham, the mayor of Kawartha Lakes – which includes Lindsay – expressed disappointment that the province was going to terminate the pilot.
Mr. Letham said he would have liked to have seen the results from the project. “It is unfortunate that we are not going to let it play out,” he said. “Regarding social assistance, we should be always looking for ways for doing it better.”