I lived on social assistance – first welfare and then ODSP (‘disability’) for many years. I have also been organizing and doing casework with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty for a long time. I was recently training some folks who were just starting to do casework and I wrote down the key benefits that they needed to know because they were relatively quick and easy ways to get people’s cheques increased – or at least they used to be. In looking at the list, however, I recognized a pattern of what I am calling invisible austerity. Austerity is the government program of reducing budget deficits – usually this means through cuts in spending. The Liberal government works to create the appearance that it isn’t targeting poor people but the reality on the ground is that poor people’s lives are way worse now than they were before they came to power.
There was widespread outrage amongst the Left over the substantial cuts that Mike Harris’s Tory government implemented in the 1990s. These cuts were dramatic, massive and very much a part of public conversation. Since that time, we have had two different Liberal Premiers – Dalton McGuinty who campaigned under the slogan “Choose Change” and Kathleen Wynne who fancies herself as “The Social Justice Premier.” But the reality is that the Liberals have been neither a change nor just. Indeed, they have solidified Conservative austerity measures and quietly made things worse. I am going to outline a few key ways that they have gone about this, the implications for disabled people and what we can do about it.
Before I do that though, I want to just quickly explain why I have to talk about welfare, or Ontario Works (OW) when I am talking about disability and social assistance. Lots of people on welfare are disabled. Roughly 70% of people who get ODSP were on welfare while they waited.1 Further, many people on Ontario Works are newly disabled, considered to be temporarily disabled or simply would never qualify for ODSP but can’t get a job because of systemic disablism. The restrictive definition of disability in ODSP leaves most disabled people out – including those who can’t work within the economy as it is.
There are a number of changes that the Liberals have made to social assistance – both OW and ODSP – that seem minor but have major implications in poor people’s lives.
The first is the Liberal government’s refusal to raise social assistance rates with inflation. They have raised rates 1-3% a year, generally below the rate of inflation. So if you already have shamefully low incomes for people and costs keep getting higher, poor people are actually losing more. Welfare rates were cut 21.6% in 1995 but since then people on both welfare and ODSP have lost much more. Indeed we need a raise of 55% to put welfare rates back at 1995 levels. The 21.6% – one fifth of people’s cheques was the austerity and the other 33.4% is what Hackworth calls “the shadow of austerity.”2 The shadow of austerity in Ontario is a very long one and grows every day. Effectively, people on social assistance have received an additional cut to their rates almost every year that the Liberals have been in power.
What seem like minor and confusing changes to benefits for most people are, in reality, massive slashing of programs. For example, the special diet was a little known benefit until OCAP began publicizing it in 2005. Lots of people started accessing this benefit that they were legally entitled to so, in response, the Liberals made it more difficult to get. They brought in a ridiculous rule that you had to use a special form that was designed to slow down the process for people. Then they changed the benefit from being needs based (like you need an organic diet or you need iron supplements) to being condition based (so if you have diabetes you get a set amount). Under the new scheme, if you had cancer or AIDS and had lost more than 10% of your body weight you still wouldn’t get the maximum amount of $250 a month – you had to have an additional condition to get it. It meant that lots of people who had dietary needs but not conditions listed couldn’t access the money they needed for food. For example, someone I worked with had an intellectual disability and couldn’t cook – he lost his special diet and started going hungry because he couldn’t afford to buy cooked meals anymore. Lots of people gave up. Some people lost their housing or got sick. Some people were successful in navigating the long appeals process for discrimination on the grounds of disability.
To give you an example of the scale of the special diet, before OCAP and its allies started publicizing it and working with medical providers to help people access it, about $6 million was going to people for this benefit. By 2010, it had gone up to $200 million.3 With poor people being a little better off in the province and with fewer people on social assistance having to choose between eating healthy and making rent, the Liberals announced they were going to terminate the program. We fought to keep it and won but the special diet remains a shadow of its former self although to the average person it looks no different which makes it a form of invisible austerity.
The Liberals recently eliminated the Community Start-Up Benefit which gave people on social assistance money to move or get essential furniture. This was money that women used to flee domestic violence that people were able to keep their housing with to make up arrears and that people used to replace what was lost because of floods, fires or bed bugs. The discourse was one not of a cut, simply replacing this program with a municipally administered one that could be used for any poor person, not just someone on social assistance. The reality is that many municipalities don’t have any replacement program at all. In Toronto, where we do have a program, it is only available to people on social assistance anyways and is much more difficult for people to access and is much more restricted in terms of what it is available for. This program shift is actually a form of invisible austerity and it means that people are less likely to leave a bad situation and less likely to have the basic things they need.
The new administration also means that there is a finite fund for people to draw from. Before, if you needed the money and you qualified you got it. Now if you need the money and you qualify for it you might get it and even if they would give it to you if the fund is exhausted, you have no chance of getting the money. In Toronto, people found that the bureaucratic bumbling of the fund made it really difficult to get so a lot of people were being denied. The City cut the fund because it wasn’t being used. This puts people on social assistance into the position where they are actively competing against each other for limited funds. This is a shameful and draconian approach to welfare provision.
Transportation is another benefit that has been hit by invisible austerity. It used to be quite easy for people on social assistance to volunteer and get an extra $100 a month for transportation. However, the pesky issue of inflation has meant that metro passes have gotten more and more expensive but transportation money has not increased. So, now a Metropass costs $133.75 – people on social assistance have to make up the difference. This difference is 14% of the basic needs amount that a single person on Ontario Works receives. This money has also been increasingly difficult to get, especially for people on ODSP who now have to show that their volunteering could lead to paid work and it is difficult for many people to get it for more than 6 months.
There is also a major attack on ODSP recipients taking place right now. Many people are not granted ODSP permanently but given a time period, usually 2-5 years before they are reassessed. Lots people’s reviews were not done when their time came up and the government is trying to eliminate 60,000 current and backlogged cases. By next April, the Liberals hope to be doing 1,900 reviews a month.4 This is not an innocent bureaucratic measure – it is a purposeful attempt to cut people off of ODSP and save money on the backs of disabled people in Ontario. The review package is almost identical to the original application – which takes a lot of work to complete and has to be filled out by an approved medical professional. People only have 90 days to go through this process – meet their doctor multiple times, meet with specialists fill out their personal statements, etc. Having gone through the ODSP application process, I can attest to the incredible amount of work that it takes. When people apply they generally know it is coming and are ready to go through the process – they’ve seen a number of specialists and have the reports and have discussed it with their doctors. But this reapplication review process comes out of nowhere and many people aren’t prepared for it. Some people will have lost their doctors and won’t even be able to find a new one before the deadline. Some people simply won’t be able to fill out the forms – they may be in crisis or not understand the process or be able to read or be able to leave their home to go to the many doctors’ appointments they will need or they may be homeless and not get the letter or their doctors may be too busy to fill the forms out. Some people will get this letter and it will put them into crisis. People used to get a phone call from a worker in addition to the letter – this way they could ask questions and be sure they understood the process but the Provinces eliminated this so called duplication.
Currently, about 20% of people are not found to still be disabled by ODSP’s Disability Adjudication Unit which means that 12,000 people will be cut-off. Some of these people will successfully appeal but we don’t know how many. The most recent stats available, though, say that 54% of appeals of the finding of not being disabled are granted, 41% of them are denied, including the 12% of people who lose their appeal because they don’t show up.6 Indeed, the system is one of which the Income Security Advocacy Centre has called “Denial by Design.” The government knows that some of the people will give up and not appeal so having a high denial rate means financial savings.
The last available statistics from the Social Benefits tribunal that hears appeals was that it took nearly 10 months, on average, to make a decision.6 This means that thousands of people will be in limbo for nearly a year to find out if they will lose their ODSP. Here again, what seems like the functioning of the social assistance apparatus is, effectively, a form of invisible austerity – one that is designed to cut people off of ODSP. In OCAP, we are deeply concerned that the province will attempt to ramp up reviews or work to do a massive reassessment of people (like they tried in B.C.) if they are successful in this.
When ODSP was proposed by Mike Harris, a number of people spoke out against it. One person said that “A major problem with everyone we have spoken to lies in the definition of “disability.” It is a fact that 90% of people with disabilities are considered to be mild to moderately disabled. With the definition of “disability” we are given in the present bill, the system appears to be designed to cut out the majority of those now considered disabled.” He also warned that “Under the Ontario Disability Support Program, the appeals process is seriously compromised. The nature of the information required, the time lines that must be adhered to and the options that are available for appeal seriously undermine the effectiveness and fairness of the appeal process…. Given the nature of the disabilities of many vulnerable people, these provisions are unnecessarily punitive.”7
Another person said that putting ODSP in place was “a successful depopulation of the rolls of support from the Family Benefits Act… [which] created a threshold for persons with disabilities so that only the very smallest number of persons with disabilities will ever qualify.”8 These weren’t anti-poverty activists, they were Gilles Morin and Sandara Pupatello, respectively, both MPPs speaking on behalf of the Liberal party. The Liberals know that who is considered disabled is overly limited, that the appeals process is punitive and that the system is designed to keep people off of ODSP, not help people onto it. That is why they claimed to be against implementing ODSP in the first place. Now they are using it to cut some of the poorest people in the province off of their tiny incomes in order to continue an austerity plan that only benefits the rich. Indeed, Pupatello, who became the Minister responsible for social assistance, acknowledged that “Not one of us could probably safely live on welfare.”9
While the Liberals celebrate themselves for raising social assistance – which, again, still equates to a cut – they seem to also intend to cut every adult who lives with another adult’s cheques by 14%.10 The rationale is that they share costs so they should get less. The reality however, is that rates aren’t high enough. A single person on welfare gets $626 a month and a single person on ODSP gets $1,086 but the average bachelor apartment in Toronto is $873.11 This leaves someone on OW on the street and someone on ODSP with just over $200 a month. A single parent with two young children will have just over $300 after rent. A 14% cut would be devastating to most people on social assistance.
There has been a consistent and concerted concealed attack on social assistance recipients in Ontario under the Liberal government. Why haven’t more people fought back – especially when poor people were being attacked under Harris the Left was united against those attacks. I think there are two key reasons for this. The first is that the Liberals employ this notion of constructive engagement – the appearance that they are approachable and will listen to us. But while segments on the Left talk with them they are fucking us over. The second reason is deeply related – certain sectors of the Province are much safer under the Liberals than the Tories. The Liberals were never going to lay 100,000 people off, for example. So, people take small concessions from the Liberals and don’t fight them – essentially selling out the most vulnerable to be less insecure. Rather try and slow the rate of austerity, we think that it needs to be stopped and that, if we are united, we can stop it.
What I have described probably seems really grim. It is grim. People are losing their homes or forced to stay on the street because of austerity. People are going hungry. People are getting sick. People are dying.
While I intimately understand the direness of the situation, I want to be very clear that I have hope. My Hope comes from knowing that the Liberals tried to eliminate the Special Diet benefit entirely and failed because poor people in this province and our allies fought back. While they were successful in eliminating the Community Start-Up, collective resistance forced them to put $42 million back into the new benefit. And, the Liberals wanted to eliminate ODSP and make the vast majority of disabled people go onto welfare and our fight against that forced them to backtrack. I know that we can win what we need but I also know that it will be a fight.
We need you in it. We need you to come out to the Raise the Rates week of Action events in your town. Share this post and talk to people you know about this issue. For more information visit raisetherates.ca or ocap.ca. When I say it will be a fight, I mean it. We have to give it all we have, we have to fight back together and we have to fight to win.
2. Hackworth, J. (2009). Political marginalization, misguided nationalism and the destruction of Canada’s social housing systems. In S. Glynn (Ed.) Where the other half lives: Lower income housing in and neo-liberal world (pp. 257-277). London: Pluto Press.
4. Based on conversations with government officials.
6. Social Benefits Tribunal. (2010). 2010 Annual Report. 6% are “other”