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Conservatives have it half right and half wrong about welfare. They think the best cure for poverty is a job.

They think anyone who can work should work. That's why they slashed welfare rates in Ontario and imposed workfare. Call it the "Mike Harris" approach. The trouble is, some people need a lot of support to get a job. A single mom with two kids might need child care, treatment for depression or dental work to replace missing teeth (it's hard to get a job with missing teeth).

Progressives have it half right and half wrong, too. They think everyone, regardless of employment status, deserves a decent level of support. But sometimes, their expectations of people are way too low. And if welfare rates are too high, people won't go to work. Call this approach "Bob Rae in his socialist phase," when the percentage of people on Ontario's welfare rolls was among the highest in North America.

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Here in Ontario, we have it almost completely wrong. Our programs to help people find work are a miserable failure. Those on the bottom end of the welfare scale don't get a decent level of support (unless you think a single adult in Toronto can live on $599 a month). On top of that, we've created a bureaucratic nightmare. Ontario has 45 different benefit programs, 240 different benefit rates and more than 800 rules and regulations governing social assistance. Case workers, who are supposed to help people find jobs, can spend more than 70 per cent of their time trying to understand and enforce the rules. The biggest product of the system is useless paperwork.

There is one general welfare program for the abled (if that's a word) and another for people with disabilities, which is now bigger than the first program. Most people with disabilities want to work. But the system does almost nothing to help them prepare for and find employment. Essentially, it stigmatizes them and sends the message that they can't expect much from the job market. Needless to say, there's no accountability because the system makes no sense. This splendid monument to incompetence costs taxpayers $8.3-billion a year.

Can this mess be fixed? Frances Lankin thinks so. She's the co-chair of a commission on social assistance in Ontario that released its findings Wednesday. Ms. Lankin knows the score because she ran Toronto's United Way for a decade; her co-commissioner, Munir Sheikh, is the former chief statistician of Canada. They've produced a prescription for reform that's both hard-headed and post-partisan.

The basics are easy enough to grasp. First, get rid of the complexity. Have one program that's easy to understand. That way people can navigate the system and case workers can concentrate on their real jobs. Second, push the service delivery down to the municipal level. After all, that's where the local knowledge is. Third, make it easier for employers to get involved. The good news is, many employers want to hire people with disabilities; the bad news is, we make it as hard as possible for them, because few people working on the social services end know the local labour market or understand how businesses operate.

We should also use a triage system to figure out what level of assistance someone needs. Some people – skilled new immigrants, for instance – simply need mentoring and networking opportunities to get themselves plugged into the labour market. Others, such as those who've been out of the work force for a long time, need more help. The truly unemployable, as well as those at the bottom rung of welfare, deserve a decent level of support. And we need to develop performance measures and audit the whole thing to make sure it's working.

This is a depoliticized, post-partisan approach to welfare reform. It puts the dignity of work front and centre. It recognizes that work is what binds people to society and builds their skills and self-esteem. Many social-action groups have endorsed it. So have an impressive array of business leaders, who realize that the private sector has got to be a part of the solution. The real question isn't how to reform welfare. It's whether the government can reform itself.

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