Ontario’s Poverty Reduction Plan Unveiled

Ontario Government to Reduce Child Poverty by 25% in 5 Years

The Ontario Government’s new poverty-reduction plan has attracted both praise and criticism as it aims to reduce poverty in children by 25% over the next five years.

On December 4, 2008, the Ontario government released its long-awaited $1.4 billion poverty reduction plan as promised. Entitled “Breaking the Cycle”, the timing of this release was unfortunately overshadowed by the so-called “crisis in federal Parliament” and the threat of a non-confidence vote.

Fortunately, it was still business as usual for the Ontario government. As the plan was released, it drew praise from organizations such as the Toronto United Way and the province-wide 25in5 network, a coalition of organizations that lobbied for the plan and pushed for a target of 25% reduction in poverty over the period of 5 years.

In response to concerns of organizations, the Ontario Government agreed to the 25% in five-year target, although this target was narrowed to families with children. Organizations responding to these announcements felt it was the right start and everyone looked forward to its implementation. However, the plan was short on specifics and some organizations expressed concerns about poverty affecting individuals outside of families.

While the proposal itself held few specifics, it did promise to increase the Ontario Child Benefit from the proposed maximum of $1,200 per child per year to a new maximum of $1,350. Further, it promised to create a Community Opportunities Fund that will provide resources to community groups to provide services in low-income neighborhoods, as well as to undertake an extensive review of the myriad of regulations affecting people receiving Ontario Works (OW) or Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) income.

Three small but significant changes will be immediately introduced. First, persons receiving OW/ ODSP who are enrolled in post-secondary education will now be able to keep all of their earnings and savings without it counting against their income supports, or that of their parents (if they are over the age of eighteen and still living at home). This change is significant, as currently, when students living at home are enrolled in college or university studies and receive their OSAP monies, this often puts the family’s asset levels above what is allowed, thus impacting on their parents’ continued eligibility for social assistance and/or social housing.

Second, participants who are engaged in employment assistance activities, such as looking for work or involved in a work-related course, will now be entitled to up-front child care costs. This is significant as this benefit is currently available only when one actually starts paid employment. The final change is administrative, giving those appealing benefits 30 days to ask for an internal review of their case, as opposed to the present 10 days.

While the government has not ruled poverty-reduction strategies out for other stakeholders, such as new Canadians and persons with disabilities, specific proposals for these groups were notably absent, which led to concerns expressed by the Ontario Coalition of Social Justice, ODSP Action Coalition and others, such as the Alliance for Equality for Blind Canadians.

While support for families with children is a good start, it was noted that 86% of ODSP recipients are individuals or couples without children. Other groups, such as new Canadians, aboriginals and senior citizens receiving only the public pension are also vulnerable to poverty.

With significant hikes in housing, utility and grocery costs, the real incomes of low-income persons have significantly declined. According to the ODSP Action Coalition, the maximum amount of money an individual receiving ODSP is given for housing is $454 per month. The average cost of housing in Ontario for a bachelor is $677 and for a one-bedroom, $812. This is very difficult for single individuals with disabilities to make ends meet, particularly as most of them are either unable to work or have significant barriers to the paid labor force.