Last December, the province announced a comprehensive Social Assistance Review. This is part of the all party supported Poverty Reduction Act, passed approximately two years prior. The purpose of this review is to achieve the following objectives:
The review commission will create a concrete action plan to reform Ontario's social assistance system. A reformed system will:
■help get people back to work
■be part of a larger income security system that includes municipal, provincial and federal programs
■share responsibility for improving the outcomes of low-income Ontarians with municipal and federal governments as well as the people who rely on social assistance
■be simple to understand and access, and provide people in need with basic income support in a fair and equitable way
■work well with other municipal, provincial and federal programs outside of social assistance - including education, training, housing, child care and health benefits - to support employment
■respect the autonomy, responsibility and dignity of individuals and recognize that clients are best placed to decide how to spend their money to meet their needs
■be efficient, financially sustainable and accountable to taxpayers, and
■meet its intended purpose as a system of last resort
Unfortunately, there is no stated objective to reduce poverty among those that receive, or must rely on these social programs to survive. Also, while a stated objective, the present system does more to discourage work than it does to encourage and maximize the benefits from paid work for such individuals and families.
Among my colleagues, there is as much fear and trepidation as to what this review might recommend, or result in, as there is excitement. This concern was outlined in a previous blog entry of mine. Treating persons with disabilities as part of the welfare system is the first biggest mistake of our social safety network, as this effectively prevents individuals from forming families and those with families from getting ahead financially.
As of the time of the 2006 Census, 68.6% of all families consist of two married persons, while an additional 15.5% of families in the 2006 Census were living in a common law relationship. Accoding to the Ministry of Community & Social Services, as of February 2011, 77.3% of the entire ODSP caseload consists of individual persons living alone, while an additional 8.75% are single parents with dependents under the age of eighteen years of age. This means approximately 84% of ODSP recipients are unattached, while a roughly equal number of non-recipients are attached in some way.
According to the National Council of Welfare, the greatest risk of poverty falls on to those who are unattached. When risk of poverty was selected by family type, unattached individuals, married couples and families, were compared, unattached individuals were at least five or six times as likely to live in poverty than those who were attached, or were a part of a family.
One would think logically, then why don't more ODSP recipients get married or involved in a common law union? The answer is obvious, if you are either one of the many unattached ODSP recipients, or one of the 16% of the caseload that is part of a marriage or common law union. If one member of the couple works, their income cannibalizes the recipient's income proportionately, regardless of whether the recipient has earnings of his or her own or not. The non-disabled spouse is obligated to fully support the disabled spouse to an extent that is beyond what is required by law in non-welfare situations. For example, if the disabled spouse was in receipt of worker's compensation, CPP Disability, Long-Term Disability, or any other income, even earnings, these sources of income are completely unaffected by the non-disabled person's income and assets, even though in those cases, the non-disabled person has an equal obligation under law to support their spouse. That means the working spouse goes to work, gets taxed on every dollar they make, and after that, they lose an additional 50% of their income to ODSP. In effect, they are paying more taxes than are required of millionaires!
If a spouse wants to bring their family out of poverty, they must either work in a job that pays them at least $70,000 or $80,000 a year, with benefits, or work the equivalent of 2.5 jobs to keep their family OFF benefits. Conversely, the person with the disability loses more and more of their independence the more money their spouse earns. This is setting people up for some pretty horrible situations: Many times, spouses do not feel obligated to report their income to ODSP, and thus will not disclose their income to their disabled spouses and thus will not declare their income, getting the disabled person in trouble with ODSP. Henceforth, this type of intrusion in the family unit results in a large number of break-ups. In virtually all of the break-ups I have seen for this reason, resulted in ODSP forcing the non-disabled spouse, now separated from them, to pay support - even if they have to sue. Now the non-disabled spouse does not only have to support themselves, they now have to support a second household, while the disabled person does not net a single penny more than they would if they were on ODSP alone.
When this issue is raised in some parts of the community, some common retorts come back about why should well-paid lawyers or teachers or business people be able to keep all of their income if they marry somebody on ODSP? The answer is simple. These people get to keep all of their income if their spouse is working, is on WSIB, is on CPP, is on LTD, or whatever else, apart from ODSP. The tax system takes care of any alleged inequities. If they split up with their ODSP recipient partner, they would still have to pay support as they always would have, regardless of the lower income spouse's source of income. Under the current law, working spouses are required to do more than their obligation under family law, and suffer greater penalties if the relationship does not work. That is why there are so very few people married or living common law that receive ODSP. Thus, their opportunity to escape poverty by marrying somebody is closed to them.
Self-employment is often an option for persons with disabilities that cannot fit in the regular workplace. Many people who start their own businesses carry on and become quite well off, as a result of their own efforts and subsequently, the business supports them. Unfortunately, for those in receipt of ODSP, the rules prohibit any moves that can help get a recipient out of poverty. The self-employment directive, or Directive 5.4, has been set up to keep a recipient and/or their family in poverty and relying on ODSP in perpetuity. Less than 2% of those on ODSP are receiving self-employment income (reports from Ministry sources). Many people who were self-employed have stopped working in their businesses, once the barriers put into place by ODSP are discovered and affect them.
First, the self-employed person cannot hire anybody to assist them. The person is supposed to be the sales person, the accounts recievable, accounts payable, receptionist, researcher, delivery person, service provider, etc. For businesses beyond being a dog walker, babysitter, crafts person, or writer, the business is going to need to grow to accommodate increased business and service demand. A business owner can't tell its customers that "No I can't serve you because if I do, I will need to hire somebody else to help me and I am not allowed to, so I have to keep my business small and non-profitable". First, a business person would be stupid to admit this, as customers would not patronize a business that is known to be operated by somebody with a disability ... due to stigma. Second, this business is not permitted to write off expenses to attend networking sessions with peers, or to purchase career related clothing to help present a positive and business like image to their customers.
If the business person is any good, the customer base WILL grow, and it is beneficial to ODSP for it to do so, as over time, the earnings will increase and in many cases, eventually take the person and/or their family off ODSP. By sticking to the original directive, the person ends up working very long hours every day, often risking exhaustion and then possibly compromising product or service quality as a result of not having paid help to take care of the administrative matters. In a decent business, the telephone might ring twenty to twenty-five times a day. There may be as many as thirty to forty e-mails. Somebody needs to respond to them, or the customers calling or emailing will be upset. However, responding to the calls or the email does not result in billable time, so the time spent doing these items takes away from time that is paid.
ODSP's objection is they don't want taxpayers to subsidize a business. This objection is moot given multi-billion dollar handouts to corporations each year, as well as regularly FUNDED programs for consumer/survivor initiatives, as well as a number of other "community economic development initiatives". Any employee funded under a business operated by an ODSP recipient would be paid for from the business' earnings, unlike the consumer/survivor businesses, such as those run or started by groups like OCAB, or Ontario Council of Alternative Businesses. While this is not an objection to these types of organizations, the government needs to be consistent with its policy applications and objections. If they do not want to let ODSP recipients that operate private businesses hire employees, then stop handing out money to banks, insurance companies, automakers, etc. and discontinue funding for all alternative businesses.
Because the above actions are not going to stop for various policy-based reasons, then the rule against hiring employees must cease.
With this policy in place, we are forcing vulnerable persons to work very long hours, completing all tasks associated with the operations of a business, and replete with limitations imposed on them by their disability. They are expected to be superhuman. Even people without disabilities that operate a business have their limits, and will definitely seek to hire a helper at some point when their business starts to grow. Instead of deducting the money paid out as 100% and thus, risking the family's base income, ODSP should connect these self-employed persons to business consultants to help ensure they hire the right kind of help, obtain the best marketing assistance, and so forth to ensure the business works well. Income that goes to the owner is still declared, but all income going to other workers, or to other purchases should be exempt as it would under Canada Revenue Agency rules.
A further complication of this issue is when one starts or is involved with a business subject to special regulations, such as the Health Profession Regulations Board, the Teacher's College, the Ontario College of Social Workers and Social Service Workers, or the Law Society of Upper Canada, there are other regulations imposed on the business in order for it to keep running, such as continuing education regulations, conference attendances, technological training workshops, and so forth, that ODSP also fails to exempt. The directive only allows conferences where income is being earned. These workshops are necessary to meet the conditions of one's license. At the present time, I know of a few contractors, tradesmen, a registered nurse that practices naturpathic medicine, a self-employed counsellor, a couple of lawyers, and a trades writer, all of whom are considering quitting working altogether because of the ODSP rules restricting their businesses. ODSP needs to ask itself if it is better to keep them working, or to have them sit at home and continue to collect ODSP in perpetuity.
One of my contractor clients has been unable to break the barrier because of this, as in order to be considered credible and able to bid on large contracts, he needs to have paid help. He can't make an adequate living on "Joe jobs" like painting window sills, and installing the odd set of blinds. He needs to be able to access and utilize the labour of other workers in order to even take on larger residential jobs. Another client wants to set up a limousine company, but will run into significant difficulties if he is unable to acquire more than one vehicle for his business and to hire somebody else to do the work, when he needs a break, or wants to grow his business beyond small jobs. In particular, these regulations also apply to the non-disabled spouses of ODSP recipients. Why? What purpose does this serve? How do these regulations help the self-employed recipients or spouses of recipients earn more money, grow their businesses (thus make them a more secure source of income over time), or improve their working conditions?
Some recipients live in subsidized housing, and for these people, it is impossible to start or become involved in self-employment anyways, due to regulations in subsidized housing that irrationally prohibit this. Again, over 70% of businesses that operate outside the home (e.g. operate in a commercial office or industrial space) started in the home or in a garage. Without the chance to start, these would be entrepreneurs are not going to be working, thus setting a further precedent in terms of time spent in subsidized housing and thus increasing the wait list for others waiting to move in. For these recipients even working is severely curtailed. In a report, our own John Stapleton reported on the insanity of these regulations governing earned income and subsidized housing, when it crosses over from income from social assistance. In this case, the recipient was in supportive housing, and as she worked more, her rent went up by a ridiculous amount. She soon fell into arrears, and the only way she was able to budget was to quit her job, and stay on ODSP only. How does that help people return to the workforce?
Another issue is savings. Even if somebody on ODSP was miraculously able to work and put away some money, they are limited to a total of $5,000 in "liquid assets", meaning that if they do not qualify for the generous provisions of the Registered Disability Savings Plan, only issued to those with very severe and visible disabilities, they will retire poor. They will rely only on government provisions for retirement, and given that most of these people live alone, they will definitely be living below the Statistics Canada poverty line. A non-disabled spouse has to drain ALL of their retirement savings in order for their disabled spouse to qualify for ODSP, and after that, cannot replenish this fund, no matter how hard they work. What good does this do? How does this help the economy? This is yet another reason why ODSP recipients cannot get into relationships.
A final issue is earnings themselves. The government was good to increase the amount of money one can keep from working by increasing the percentage of earned income one can keep, and adding a $100 work benefit to offset the small percentage of workers that would lose out on the 50% proposal alone. However, this new policy does not exempt any income. The fifty percent starts from the very first dollar earned, until the person earns enough to migrate off ODSP. For many people who accept minimum wage employment, for example, they feel they are losing, as they are bringing in what they see as less than minimum wage for every hour they work. One Conservative MPP recognized this issue, and attempted to push for an exempted earnings bracket of $500 per individual, and if that person is married, $700 (although as a Coalition, we proposed $1,000 if they still keep the benefit unit). This money would be exempt from any deductions until after they earn more than that amount, then the 50% deduction will kick in.
The province will bitch and complain about the size of their deficit. Don't let them do this, or white wash this deliberate ploy to keep people with disabilities under their thumbs. As long as they keep pouring money into tax cuts for businesses, regardless of whether they hire anybody or not, or worse yet - handing out money like they did with the auto sector, or paying for frills like eHealth, the OLG, multi-million dollar consultants, and so forth, there are NO excuses. Their existing policies and directives keep people in poverty, regardless of how hard they work, or how they try to organize their financial affairs. Normal exits from poverty such as a job or business, or moving in with a spouse, are not available to this population like it is for other people.
Yet the government has a policy on its books that ODSP recipients and beneficiaries can recieve up to $6,000 a year in gifts from "family and friends". There is a lot wrong with this. It is presumptuous: it assumes that all recipients have family members that are only itching to pour their hard-earned monies into the accounts of their loved ones on ODSP. In my experience working with ODSP recipients, I can count the number of recipients that have family that is that supportive on my left hand. Most recipients that have family at all cannot benefit from this, as their own families are also on ODSP (e.g. genetic disabilities), too old or frail themselves, or dead. Others are too far away. A few have families that have completely written them out of their lives, and fail to contact them, let alone provide "gifts". Why can't an ODSP recipient who is able and willing to earn make up this $500 per month for themselves, particularly if they are unable to access any "gifts" from family and friends?
Further, this whole "gifts" policy treats persons with disabilities as some type of charity case. Many do not want to be considered a charity case. When people come into my office to appeal their ODSP benefits, most are tearful, upset and ashamed of being required to ask for these benefits in the first place. Must we punish them some more to make them look like society's Timmy and Tammy? This is not a request to remove this provision, but to equalize earnings, or perhaps make earnings even more exempt because of the cost of obtaining these earnings. As far as I am concerned, a non-disabled spouse should be exempt - period, or at worst, exempt in terms of $500 per month per member of the benefit unit, including themselves, if they are going to be kept as part of the benefit unit ... at least that way, they are providing a "gift" from family of sorts, that should be equivalent to a gift from say, one's parents or siblings. Why is a "gift" from a parent or sibling exempt, but not exempt if it comes from a working spouse? The inconsistencies and ideologies that mount these policies are not only confusing, but unfair for many groups.
The final issue is definition of disability. This is one of the concerns that has led to rifts within the legal community about these programs. Ontario does have a fairly generous program compared to other programs in other provinces. A disability program should not require one to be "permanently unemployable" or "severely disabled", but must present proof that they have a verifiable disability that leads to substantial restrictions in a number of areas, such as working, caring for oneself, engaging in relationships, interacting in the community, etc. but not all of them. The existing definition works fine, with some cases to be reviewed in a set period of time, if it appears the disability is of a time limited nature. Others are long term, and should be subject to rapid reinstatement if a job does not work out. Restricting the definition of disability only results in more long term cases on Ontario Works, or people cycling in and out of Ontario Works without ever getting permanently back into the labour force. I know many people who are on OW for years at a time, simply because they lack a family doctor to assist them with their ODSP application, or they have unrecognized barriers. For example, an inability to drive, in itself, as long as the reason for it is medical, should be deemed a substantial restriction that should qualify one for disability benefits.
People who consider themselves fiscal conservatives will consider the cost of these proposals, and scream. However, the cost of NOT doing these things will keep people on ODSP for life, and the numbers of those with earnings will continue to remain very low. Indirectly, medical costs associated with depression, poverty, isolation and social exclusion will more than make up for what has been "saved" by keeping them on this punitive system.