The Ford government is scrapping controversial cuts to welfare for vulnerable children and adults with part-time jobs as part of a broader review of Ontario’s social assistance system, the Star has learned.
The reversal comes on the eve of a Toronto city council vote Thursday to approve an additional $8.5 million over the next six months to help families impacted by the elimination of the provincial Transition Child Benefit, which was set to take effect Nov. 1.
The Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services informed municipalities late Wednesday that the $67 million child benefit is no longer on the chopping block.
Previously announced changes to earnings exemptions — the amount of money a person on welfare can earn from a part-time job before their benefits are reduced — are also being reversed.
Last fall, the government announced it would be changing the definition of disability for people receiving benefits under Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP). It was not clear Wednesday evening if that decision was also being walked back.
Toronto Mayor John Tory, who was among several Ontario mayors who appealed directly to Children, Community and Social Services Minister Todd Smith about the loss of the Transition Child Benefit, praised the province’s change of heart.
“I want to thank the government of Ontario for listening to the concerns raised about the cancellation of this funding and the impact it would have on families, their housing needs in particular, and the city’s emergency shelter system, which would have ended up as a destination of last resort for many families,” Tory said in a statement.
“I hope that the review of this benefit now underway will both recognize the important contribution it makes to family stability and recognize that is should be funded on a permanent basis by the provincial and federal governments.”
The changes come amid sinking approval ratings for Premier Doug Ford and follow reversals of other announced cuts to funding for municipalities and children with autism.
A spokeswoman for Smith said the welfare cuts are being restored to make way for a broader review.
“After careful consideration, these programs will continue in their current form to all recipients in accordance with existing policies,” said Christine Wood.
“We are focusing on the broader plan to improve social assistance and employment programs so that everyone can contribute to the success of our province,” Wood said in a written statement. “We are listening and exploring the best ways to bring the most positive outcomes for Ontarians in need.”
Asked if the government is cancelling its plan to redefine disability, Wood said, “We are constantly reviewing government programs with a focus on improved delivery and better outcomes.”
Each month, the Transition Child Benefit helps an average of 32,000 children whose families are either not receiving the Ontario Child Benefit and the Canada Child Benefit or are not getting the full amount. The monthly payment of up to $230 per child helps families feed and clothe their children, as these costs are not included in welfare benefits.
An average of almost 16,000 families a month — including 4,000 in Toronto — would have been impacted across the province had the funding been cut.
About one-quarter of those families are refugee claimants who are not eligible for provincial and federal child benefits because their claims have not yet been processed. Parents with newborns awaiting benefits, those who have not had their tax benefits adjusted after a job loss and those who have had benefits suspended due to a tax audit would have also lost the support.
Toronto city staff predicted many affected families would have become homeless and forced into the city’s already overtaxed emergency shelter system. They said it would be less costly for the city to create a “temporary family housing benefit” to help them.
Municipal social services staff in Hamilton, Ottawa, Waterloo, Windsor, Niagara and Halton had similar concerns.
Rumours that the government was changing course began circulating last week when the Star reported the province directed municipal welfare offices “to destroy” more than 240,000 inserts to October’s Ontario Works cheques that outlined the previously announced cuts. Almost 380,000 inserts to Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) cheques, overseen by provincial welfare offices, were also never sent.
“I welcome a pause in cuts that I think would have been very detrimental to people living in very vulnerable situations,” said Dr. Gary Bloch of Health Providers Against Poverty.
“But from what I understand, this doesn’t speak to ongoing income security for people on social assistance who are the poorest in the province,” he said. “This review leads us to another period of uncertainty, of unknown duration, of unknown process and with an unknown set of goals.”
Bloch, a family physician whose downtown Toronto practice includes many people on social assistance, was one of more than 80 health and social service organizations and individuals who sent a letter to Smith Wednesday urging him to reverse plans to restrict access to ODSP.
Last November, then-minister Lisa MacLeod said the province was changing the definition of disability to align with more restrictive definitions in federal programs such as the Canada Pension Plan-Disability (CPP-D).
Anti-poverty and disability activists oppose the move because the CPP-D definition doesn’t include people with temporary or episodic disabilities such as cancer, lupus and some mental illnesses.
They worry the change would force thousands of ill and disabled people in the province to rely on Ontario Works, a program geared to employment with maximum benefits of just $733 a month.
The maximum basic needs and shelter benefit under ODSP for a single person is $1,169, or just over $14,000 a year. Benefits under both programs fall significantly below Ontario’s poverty line of about $23,000 for a single person in 2017.
Almost 965,000 people rely on social assistance in Ontario.
Laurie Monsebraaten is a Toronto-based reporter covering social justice. Follow her on Twitter: @lmonseb