|This package contains information on the new Provincial legislation. Sections include:
|This information package is very useful to individuals, the non-profit sector andthe private sector, all of which this new legislation effects. Understanding this new legislation is made easier by this informative package which examines the changes, effects and implications of this new law to our community.|
The Social Assistance Reform Act (SARA) came into effect fully on June 1st, 1998 replacing the old social assistance programs of General Welfare Assistance and Family Benefits Allowance with the Ontario Works Act and the Ontario Disability Support Program Act. All new social assistance applicants must apply under the new rules. Those people who were on those programs were or will be automatically transferred to the new programs. The Social Assistance Reform Act separates those in need of social assistance into two categories: people who are unemployed but considered employable, and people with disabilities. These two categories form two new separate social assistance programs:
All individuals who are financially eligible for social assistance, and who do not fit into the new disability program, come under Ontario Works. This also includes adults between the ages of 60 and 65 years of age and single parents who were previously eligible for social assistance under the Family Benefits Act. To be eligible for Ontario Works, applicants must sign a participation agreement requiring them to perform activities in exchange for social assistance (for details see Section 2).
The Ontario Disability Support Program came into effective on June 1st, 1998. This new program is for people eligible for social assistance with a physical or mental impairment. The new ODSPA contains a new definition of disability (for details see Section 5).
Before the SARA was introduced, adults (those over 18 years of age) on social assistance living with their parents or guardian were considered financially independent and could receive social assistance benefits of their own. Under SARA, as of April 1, 1998, adults living with their parents or guardian receive either reduced benefits or become ineligible for benefits.
These rules do not apply for ODSP recipients living with their parents. ODSP clients who live with their parents can still receive full benefits, both shelter and basic needs allowance.
To qualify for social assistance individuals may only have minimal financial assets. The same was true under General Welfare Assistance Act and Family Benefits Allowance Act; however, under SARA, the definition of "minimal" has changed. The new law reduces the amount of allowable assets for all social assistance recipients except those receiving an allowance under ODSPA.
If there is suspicion that a person is transferring financial assets in order to qualify for social assistance, the individual can be denied benefits. Under the old law, asset investigations could go back into recipients personal/financial records as far as three years, now they can go back four years.
A persons principal residence is exempt from being considered an asset. As under the old law, social assistance recipients are not required to sell their home in order to qualify for assistance. However, the new law allows for liens to be put on the principal residence of social assistance recipients who have been receiving assistance for more than twelve months. The intent is to treat the financial assistance the recipient receives like a loan.
The amount that can be recovered under the lien is the actual amount paid in financial assistance after the date the consent was signed. The recipient is only allowed to retain 10% plus $5,000 of their equity in the house.
Eligibility Review Officers (EROs) are selected case workers with investigatory power regarding social assistance eligibility. The power of these officers is now recognized in the legislation.
All individuals, including friends and relatives, deemed relevant to a case are required to cooperate with EROs or provide the requested documents. Those who do not cooperate face a penalty or a prison term.
The term "workfare" is used to describe any program that requires people to participate in mandatory activities in exchange for receiving social assistance. These requirements can take the form of job search, training, basic education, skills upgrading and unpaid community service. Job search has always been a requirement for General Welfare Assistance, however, under Ontario Works recipients are mandated to participate in additional programs. The one or more of 3 activities that recipients must now participate in to receive social assistance are:
In order to receive financial assistance, recipients in Ontario Works will be required to sign an Ontario Works "participation agreement" which will bind the individual to participate in one or more of the above Ontario Works programs. Recipients during the first 4 months of receiving social assistance are expected to perform job search activities and are provided with employment supports. After the first 4 months if the recipient has been unable to find a job (any job offer must be excepted) they can be required to participate in the Community Participation or Employment Placement programs whilst still performing a job search. Failure to comply with the Ontario Works participation agreement can result in sanctions.
Workfare is not a new idea. Workfare or work-for-welfare programs have existed in various forms at different times in history. Under the Elizabethan Poor Laws of 16th century England, workhouses were established for destitute people considered able to work. The English Poor Law Report of 1834 argued that generous relief schemes removed the incentive for poor people to work. As a result, families were separated and forced to perform make-work projects in return for food, shelter and sometimes daily allowances. Welfare rates fluctuate according to economic conditions. When unemployment and welfare rates are high workfare programs appear. During the great depression in Ontario of the 1930's, when one in three workers was without work, workfare emerged on a large scale. Federally funded camps appeared paying single men 20 cents a day to do manual labour such as clearing trees.
More recently in the 1980's the idea has become popular government policy again, particularly in the United States and now again in Ontario. Workfare has roots in the belief that the poor are at fault or are responsible for their situation, thus criminalizing poverty. Workfare promotes the belief that the unemployed are lazy and do not want to work, taking the focus off the lack of jobs in the economy.
Canadian provinces such as Quebec and Alberta have experimented with workfare programs, claiming that they help social assistance recipients find permanent jobs. However, studies have shown that Workfare has failed in helping people find permanent jobs that pay more than minimum wage, thus failing to raise them out of poverty. Statistics Canada data reveals that the number of single parents in Alberta living below the poverty line increased from 5% in 1993 to 17% in 1995 after the implementation of their workfare program.
The W-2 reform in Wisconsin, USA is a workfare program based on a private sector model. The program in Wisconsin has been praised for its dramatic impact on lowering the number of people on welfare. However, during the period that Wisconsin slashed its welfare rolls, the state enjoyed extremely low unemployment rates - in the range of 3-4%. Even with low unemployment many of the jobs W-2 participants were getting were low-wage jobs leaving them below the poverty line.
In Montreal, a single person received around $650 on welfare before the implementation of their "EXTRA" workfare program in 1989. In the EXTRA-workfare program the same person received a reduced amount of $500 a month, but could earn an extra $150 in exchange for 80 hours a month of community work. One could say if the $650 in assistance is divided by the 80 hours of work this equals a wage of $1.87 an hour.
Workfare focuses on the issues of high welfare rates, blaming the recipient for being poor, rather than focusing on the causes of unemployment and poverty.
There have been many changes to the social assistance appeals process. The new appeals process is detailed in the Social Assistance Reform Act (SARA) regulations and is stricter than the previous legislation. It leaves little room for flexibility. Prior to the introduction of SARA, social assistance appeals went before the Social Assistance Review Board. Under the new Act the Social Benefits Tribunal replaces the Social Assistance Review Board.
Unlike Social Assistance Review Board, the Social Benefits Tribunal has a narrowly defined jurisdiction. It may not rule on the constitutionality of the Ontario Works Act or Ontario Disability Support Program Act (ODSPA), or any other legislation. Basically, it must accept Ontario Works Act and ODSPA, along with their respective regulations. SARA goes further, however, and provides that the Social Benefits Tribunal must also accept Ministry guidelines. Since anything can be the subject of a guideline, this has the potential to make Social Benefits Tribunal appeals virtually meaningless.
Generally social assistance decisions dealing with the eligibility for and the amount of social assistance can be appealed. However, many other decisions cannot be appealed.
If individuals wish to appeal a decision, he or she must first apply for an internal department review. An internal review must be requested in a written statement within ten days of receiving the social assistance eligibility decision. If the appeal is upheld internally, the appeal then proceeds to the Social Benefits Tribunal.
During the appeal process an applicant may apply for interim social assistance. However, if interim assistance is collected and the appeal is rejected, the interim assistance must be repaid to the government. This provision may discourage appeals.
Ontario Works is an income support program that provides temporary financial assistance to individuals and families during difficult times, such as a period of unemployment. In reality, for many individuals, seniors, single parents and parents of young children, the circumstances around their labour market participation are more complex and they may need long term support.
In 1995, the provincial government, at the start of their commitment to reform welfare, reduced general welfare benefits by 21.6%. The Government of Ontario justified these cuts by claiming that the government was bringing welfare benefits in line with other Provinces, even though living costs in all provinces are not the same. The table below shows the current maximum allowances per month for social assistance recipients under the Social Assistance Reform Act.
Basic Needs Allowance
Total Maximum Allowance
|Single Unemployed person on Ontario Works||$325||$195||$520|
|Single Disabled Person on Ontario Disability Support Program||$414||$516||$930|
|Two People on Ontario Works||$511||$390||$901|
|Single Parent with one child under 12 on Ontario Works||$511||$446||$957|
|Couple with two children under 12 on Ontario Works||$602||$576||$1,178|
The cuts to social assistance benefits have increased the number of people living in poverty. Using the figures above, a family of four (a couple with two children) on social assistance receives a maximum of $14,136 a year. The most widely used measure of poverty is Statistics Canada’s Low-Income Cut-Off line (LICO). This is calculated by looking at average expenditures on food, shelter and clothing for different family sizes in different sized communities. The 1997 LICO for Halton indicates that a family of four would need $23,213 to live on and meet their basic needs. Below that sum the family is considered poor. This same family o f four supported by social assistance would be living $9,077 per year below the poverty line. Before the cuts to social assistance rates the same family would not be as poor.
Using the latest Statistics Canada Census data, in Halton in 1996:
In Halton, as everywhere, the largest group of social assistance beneficiaries is children. Since poverty is determined by the income of the family unit, children living with families receiving social assistance are poor. Child poverty in Canada is on the rise. Since 1989 the number of poor children in Canada has increased 58%, from 934,000 poor children in to 1,472,000 in 1995. Poverty means the inability to provide many of the common opportunities that most families provide their children and has serious consequences:
The school drop out rate for Canadian poor children is twice that of non-poor children
In the language of Ontario Works and the provincial government’s welfare reform, giving people a ‘hand-up’ and helping people find the shortest route to any employment, is often referred to as the goal of the program. Through requiring people to participate in one or more of three Ontario Works programs, the government expects social assistance recipients to gain skills, improve their education, seek work and break the cycle of dependency on social assistance by finding paid employment. However, this supposition is not based on an analysis of current skills or education levels of social assistance recipients and is without analysis of the needs of the current and future labour market.
The truth is that most people on welfare are willing and desperate to find work. Statistics dispel the myth that most welfare recipients have been on assistance all their life, are uneducated, are young and single. Before the implementation of Ontario Works, of the GWA employable cases in Halton in August 1996:
Furthermore, general welfare assistance recipients have always been required to actively seek employment in order to receive benefits. However, in an economy where jobs are being eliminated in favour of technology and in the wake of continued downsizing and re-structuring of private sector companies, as well as the loss of jobs in the public sector, people on the margins have the most difficult time in finding work. More and more, people on the margins include highly skilled, highly educated people that want to work. It is arguable that resume-writing seminars and performing menial tasks in community placements will help these individuals find permanent, adequately paid employment.
The Social Assistance Reform Act has a direct impact on the not-for-profit or voluntary sector as the provincial government has involved them in the delivery of Ontario Works through its community participation program. This has an immense ethical implication for many not-for-profit agencies who find it difficult to support the notion of workfare.
Many of the ideas associated with workfare go against the principles of voluntarism. Traditionally volunteer work has been defined by three characteristics: by choice, for no wage or salary, and in service to individuals, groups or the community at large. It is up to the not-for-profit sector to choose whether or not to participate in workfare, but by doing this they might devalue the work activity and create a negative image of voluntarism, both in the public and among other volunteers.
Furthermore, not-for-profit agencies should be concerned about the issue of enforcement. Agencies will have to monitor and report on workfare participants and as such may affect the eligibility of that person to receive social assistance. Agencies will also be forced to provide any information to Eligibility Review Officers, should any suspicion arise about individuals (see Section 1).
Another important effect of the Ontario Works legislation is on the existing workforce and the employment of social assistance recipients as the new law allows for community participation in the private sector. This has major implications including replacing paid employees with social assistance recipients as it provides a pool of free or subsidized labour. The province justifies this action by saying that it will help those receiving social assistance to become more employable by providing training. In reality, it will devalue the work most citizens do and increase competition in the workplace.
Parents have for a long time been the victims of a social support system that looks for "quick fix" solutions to social, economic, and gender problems. Parents, in particular women, are often put into a double bind as they attempt to juggle two responsibilities: work and raising children. A potential problem posed by Ontario Works is the legislation’s lack of commitment to ensure parents’ accessibility to affordable, quality child care. Furthermore, Ontario Works seems to ignore the compelling figures that show a direct relationship between:
women on social assistance and domestic abuse;
domestic abuse and issues of employability; and
Healthy children make a healthy society. Children who are poor are at higher risk for health problems than children from non-poor families are. In addition, studies have shown a direct relationship between how well a child does academically and income level. Poor children are less likely than other children to do well in school are. Children from lower income families also have an increased high school drop out rate. The education level of their parents and the value placed on their education are factors in this, as are poor nutrition and hunger.
In 1989 the federal government committed itself to try and end child poverty in Canada by the year 2000. Since then the child poverty rate has increased by an alarming 58%. The child poverty rate has increased from 14.5% or 934,000 children to 21% or 1,472,000 in 1995. Many of these children are in families depending on social assistance. If parents on social assistance receive an allowance that does not allow them to provide for their family the necessary food, clothing and housing, it will have severe consequences on their children. Unhealthy children make for unhealthy families, which makes for an unhealthy society.
All parents of school age children on Ontario Works will face mandatory workfare requirements. All single parents previously on the Family Benefits Allowance Program, as of June 1, 1998 will be transferred to the Ontario Works program.
Workfare means more parents need child care. All Ontario Works participants must participate in one or more of three programs: Employment Supports, Community Participation and Employment Placement. At present, single parents with "young" children are exempt from mandatory workfare requirements. The exemption is based on the age of the youngest child. At present, regulations exclude single parents with children that are under school age. However, no age exemption is contained in the Act. This means that cabinet may alter the age exemption standard at will.
The assumption is that parents will fulfil the Ontario Works requirements while their children are at school. However, since school hours do not mirror work hours nor adult education and training hours child care will be needed and will be a major issue associated with this social assistance reform. For example:
Women who live in abusive relationships face again and again the question of whether or not they should leave their abusive partner. Many women with children find it especially difficult to leave a relationship knowing the likelihood that their children’s standard of living will fall if they are on their own. For many women, the only alternative to staying with an abusive partner is to leave and to apply for social assistance benefits. Such a move means living below the poverty line, even further below as a result of the 1995 reductions in welfare allowances.
A 1996 survey by the Ontario Association of Interval and Transition Houses found that:
The new additional requirements of Ontario Works may be a further disincentive to leaving an abusive relationship. The mandatory participation requirements of Ontario Works fails to take into account the reality that abused women receiving assistance face psychological and emotional problems which must be addressed. The Social Assistance Reform Act only allows a three-month exemption period for women who have had a traumatic experience before they must participate in Ontario Works requirements or face sanctions. For women dealing with the trauma of spousal abuse as well as all of the stresses of starting a new life and helping children to adjust, three months is not enough time to adjust and lay the ground work for a new future.
Furthermore, studies show in the cases where women remain with their abusive partners, their children who are witness to this type of behaviour have lower school attendance and their academic performance is negatively affected. Moreover, these children often experience the same type of abuse later in life that their mothers encountered. Canadian children witness domestic violence in 40% of the marriages where violence occurs. This is child abuse and a socializing agent of future violence.
Before the implementation of Ontario Works, people on social assistance aged 60-64 fell under the Family Benefits Assistance program and were considered to be ‘unemployable’. People between the ages of 60-64 receiving assistance from the now defunct Family Benefit Allowance, were therefore exempted from job search requirements. This has now changed. Under the new SARA legislation people between the ages of 60-64 who are financially eligible for social assistance come under Ontario Works and are considered employable. Therefore, these same recipients must participate in the mandatory activities: Employment Support, Community Participation and Employment Placement.
Unlike the single parent who will be transferred to Ontario Works, the people aged 60 -64 who were in receipt of Family Benefits on May 31, 1998, were "grandparented" onto the Ontario Disability Support Program and remain eligible for the higher allowance and exempt from any employment related requirements, as long as they remain otherwise eligible for the Ontario Disability Support Program. However, as of June 1, 1998 people aged 60-64 who apply for social assistance will only be eligible for Ontario Works (unless they meet the definition of disabled under the Ontario Disability Support Program) and will have to meet all Ontario Works Act requirements including asset levels and employment related activities.
This aspect of the legislation ignores the documented difficulties of older workers in finding employment. Decreases in labour force participation rates, particularly for men, and increases in the unemployment rates for older workers leads to the end result of economic hardship and psychological stress which is borne individually by older people and their families.
With the removal of the Family Benefits Act and the ‘unemployable’ category, there is no longer an exemption from job search related requirements, including workfare for people aged 60-64 on social assistance. Although provisions in the regulations exist for people between the ages of 60-64 to be exempt from mandatory requirements, their situation must first be deemed a ‘special circumstance’ by their caseworker. However, there is no definition of ‘special circumstance’ in the new act and regulations, therefore, this exemption is subject to interpretation.
The Ontario Disability Support Program Act (ODSPA) came into effect June 1, 1998. ODSPA replaces the Family Benefits Assistance program that previously provided financial assistance to those financially eligible that were unemployable or disabled (including single parents). To be eligible for the ODSP, a person must meet the criteria for financial assistance and the new definition of a person with a disability.
There were two categories under which a person was defined disabled under Family Benefits Allowance. The first was if they fell into the category of being "Permanently Unemployable" which meant a person who was unable to engage in remunerative employment for a prolonged period of time.
The second circumstance occurred when a person was defined by the regulations as "disabled". In this case the person had a major physical or mental impairment that was likely to continue for a prolonged period of time and who, as a result, was severely limited in activities pertaining to normal life.
The new legislation requires a person who is applying for ODSP to fit under one new definition. The ODSPA defines "a person with a disability" as follows:
"4. (1) Subject to subsection (2), a person is ‘a person with a disability’ for the purposes of this Part if,
(a) the person has a substantial physical or mental impairment that is continuous or recurrent and expected to last one year or more;
(b) the direct and cumulative effect of the impairment on the person’s ability to attend to his or her personal care, function in the community and function in the workplace, results in a substantial restriction in the activities of daily living; and
(c) the impairment and its likely duration and the restrictions in the person’s activities of daily living have been verified by a person with prescribed qualifications.
(2) A person is not ‘a person with a disability’ if the person’s impairment is caused by the presence in the person’s body of alcohol, a drug or some other chemically active substance that the person has ingested, unless the alcohol, drug or other substance has been authorized by prescription as provided for in the regulations."
Clients who were receiving social assistance under the Family Benefits Act as of May 31, 1998 as "disabled", "permanently unemployable, "over 65", over 60", or "a dependent spouse of a present or former recipient who is either over 60 or has dependent children" were automatically transferred to ODSPA. They did not need to make a new application. These "grandparented" ODSPA clients were permitted to remain on ODSPA under the "old" Family Benefits Allowance categories. They may, of course, become ineligible because of the acquisition of assets or income, or violation of the ODSPA rules.
If a person applying for social assistance is financially eligible and believes that they fit into the criteria of being a person who is disabled, they can apply for ODSP benefits.
Individuals can apply through Ontario Works or they can make a self-referral directly to a local ODSP office. The Disability Adjudication Unit sends the applicant an ODSP information package with a set of medical eligibility forms that must be completed.
There are three mandatory forms in the package that must be completed and one optional form:
Medical Status Form: This is a mandatory form and provides verification that the person has a substantial physical or mental impairment and its likely duration. This form must be completed by a member of the College of Physicians and Surgeons or the College of Psychologists of Ontario or the College of Optometrists of Ontario.
Activities of Daily Living Form: This mandatory form provides verification whether the direct and cumulative effect of an impairment on a person’s ability to attend to his or her personal care, to function in the community and to function in the workplace results in a substantial reduction in one or more activities of daily living. This verification (which may be referred to as a "functional assessment") may be completed by members of the colleges listed above or the College of Occupational Therapists of Ontario or the College of Physiotherapists of Ontario or the College of Chiropractors of Ontario or a nurse practitioner registered with the College of Nurses of Ontario as a registered nurse -extended class.
Consent to Disclose Medical Information Form: this form must be signed to give consent for the DAU to review the applicants medical records.
Self Assessment Form: This is an optional form that can be completed by the applicants if they so choose to describe their disability in their own words.
The new asset levels for ODSP recipients are more generous than in the previous Family Benefits Allowance rules and for the new Ontario Works program.
There are also more generous rules for ODSP recipients regarding gifts or payments than for Ontario works recipients. There is a new $4,000 annual exemption for voluntary payments or gifts to ODSP recipients as well as for income where it is used for health and disability related needs.
There are no mandatory employment related activities associated with ODSPA but a new program has been brought into the fold, Employment Supports Program, which takes the place of the Vocational Rehabilitation Services program. Its purpose is similar: to provide people with disabilities preparation techniques geared toward employment and strategies for obtaining and maintaining employment.
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