Social assistance numbers in Ontario: Classic convergence or something else?

Currently social assistance beneficiaries (men, women and children over population) hover between 6.5% and 6.6% of Ontario’s population.

We have remained at this percentage since May 2011 which means that caseloads are at an equilibrium point, a point of relative calm.

Since the late 1980’s, Ontario’s unemployment rate has tended to converge with the percentage of beneficiaries in a post-recession period. It is an odd convergence but it has just reached its silver anniversary of 25 years (the relation first showed strongly in 1988) with May’s unemployment rate of 7.3% and social assistance recipiency at 6.6% — less than a single percentage point.
(For details see http://openpolicyontario.com/presentations/.)

In June 2009, unemployment stood at 9.6% and social assistance beneficiaries at 6.0% of population. This 3.6% difference in percentage points, interestingly enough, was the largest divergence in the last 29 years. We have to go back to 1984 to see a divergence this large and the 1982 divergence was even larger.

What are we to make of this?

Elsewhere, I believe I have demonstrated (from a welfare perspective) that the 1930’s looked liked the 1990’s and the 1980’s looks like the recent Great Recession.

All of this tells us that we have entered a period of somnambulance until unemployment rises anew at some future juncture tied perhaps to stagflation or the end of easy liquidity and historically low interest rates.

Nevertheless, much is roiling ‘under the hood’, so to speak . Ontario Works continues to moderate while ODSP climbs relentlessly higher.

The June figures (not included in the excel) show an OW drop of 3,728 beneficiaries while ODSP beneficiaries increased by about 900 or so.

Some years ago, we reached the point where ODSP families exceeded the number of Ontario Works families.

But it looks like it won’t be long (maybe a year or two)  before the number of men, women and children receiving ODSP benefits will exceed Ontario Works numbers for the first time in the long history of the programs,  fundamentally changing  (in my view)  the social assistance  narrative and the social assistance paradigm.

This should tell us that we need to fundamentally rethink what our welfare and disability programs are all about.

In 1966, the Canada Assistance Plan envisaged assistance for lone parents (mothers)  with child rearing responsibilities, unemployed women  and men, and people who were unemployable due to illness as the primary categories of assistance. As late as 1996, 30 years later, lone parent beneficiaries were the largest category, unemployed employables came next and persons with disabilities comprised the smallest caseloads.

Now lone parents are demonstrably the smallest category,  the unemployed (mostly singles) are in second place and persons with long term disabilities are by far and away the largest category of recipients.

The rethink of social assistance suggested by Brighter Prospects will be an important first step in tackling the changing world before us.

But the numbers tell us that we need to find ways to remove persons with disabilities from a social assistance model entirely. They also suggest  that we need to renew our concentration on single men and women living in poverty as the most pressing issue facing the welfare system. Lone parents, as a group, continue to move away from the social assistance nexus as child benefits, child support and employment prospects continue to slowly improve.

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