If everything had gone according to plan, the Ontario government would be rolling out a new Employment-Related Benefit for people with disabilities on April 1.
Things did not go as planned, of course. Last fall the Ministry of Community and Social Services installed a costly new social assistance program on its computers. Since then, it has lurched from one snafu to the next: overpayments, underpayments, missing payments, privacy breaches and error-ridden tax forms. It is unclear when — or even whether — this mess will be cleaned up.
The implementation date for the new benefit has been postponed to Oct. 1 to the vast relief of the intended beneficiaries. They didn’t ask for — and don’t want — an overhaul of the Ontario Disability Support Plan (ODSP). The longer the ministry’s computer woes go on, the happier they’ll be. Their ultimate goal is to convince the government to abandon its ill-conceived reform altogether.
Under the old rules — still in effect — people who are eligible for Ontario disability support payments get a $100 top-up for every month they work. It doesn’t matter if their job is part-time, casual or temporary. As long as they get a paycheque, the $100 supplement is automatically added to their entitlement. It covers their transit fare, work apparel and other job-related expenses.
Under the new rules, unveiled in Finance Minister Charles Sousa’s 2014 budget, the $100 work benefit (plus a training benefit and a transition to work benefit) will be eliminated. There will be one $1,800-a-year Employment-Related Benefit.
Initially, working ODSP recipients welcomed the change, thinking it meant a boost in their income. But when they looked at the details, they realized many don’t qualify. No longer was it enough to hold down a job. They had to show they were actively searching for a better-paying job. And they couldn’t do it on their own; they were required to use an employment counsellor.
“I don’t want to go to an employment agency and grab a job at McDonalds,” said Kim Nichols, who works part-time as a receptionist at Houselink, a charity that provides supportive housing to low-income people with physical and mental disabilities and addiction issues. She has been employed steadily since 2011, quite a feat for someone who struggles with diabetes, depression and elevated anxiety.
“We’re struggling to get ahead. What do they want?” asked Stacey Bowen, a recovering addict with post-traumatic stress and chronic back problems. She has a one-year contract with the Dream Team, a non-profit organization that advocates for people with mental illness, to talk to employers about hiring people with disabilities and addictions. Technically she works 15 hours a month, but she spends many more hours preparing so she can answer questions knowledgeably. The job has brought a measure of stability to her life.
Approximately 10 per cent of Ontarians with disabilities now receive the Work-Related Benefit. They depend on it. They earn it.
Why change an incentive that works? Why punish people who tried to do what the government wanted?
The Ministry of Social Services offers three reasons:
• First, the new benefit will “simplify” the social assistance system.
• Second, it will allow “individually tailored” support for people with disabilities.
• Third, it will help low-income Ontarians “advance their careers.”
This is not the kind of help that Nichols, Bowen and their peers want. They find it intrusive and patronizing.
“The government doesn’t understand our lives at all,” Bowen said. “They (provincial bureaucrats) put us in a one bowl and shake us up and spit us out without caring where we land or end up.”
It is going to backfire, Nichols predicts. “I know people who are going to quit working (when the new program takes effect). I won’t, but a lot of people will.”
The government’s assumption is that ODSP recipients need hand-holding to get into the labour market. Self-starters who have already found a job with an employer willing to accommodate their disabilities lose $100 a month. “They dangle something under your nose and then they take it away,” Bowen said. “They judge us constantly,” Nichols added.
That is the implicit price of receiving social assistance. The rules keep changing as politicians and bureaucrats come up with new ways to ratchet up the pressure to work harder, earn more and aim higher.
What these social engineers fail to see is that they’re undercutting some of Ontario’s most determined and resourceful citizens.