‘16.2 in ‘22’: A social assistance litmus for 2022

“.…the Good Samaritan, he’s dressing,
He’s getting ready for the show
He’s going to the carnival tonight

on Desolation Row”[1]

The year 2022 may be remembered for being a pre-pandemic, mid-pandemic and post-pandemic year all at the same time. It’s just completely uncertain just a few days before we enter the new year.

One thing we do know for certain in Ontario is that there will be a provincial election on June 2 and at this juncture, it is clear that none of the three parties that have ever won a provincial election in Ontario will raise social assistance in line with inflation.

We know that there have been no increases in rates since 2018 and that they are for now, frozen in time.

We also know that there are various benchmarks that we could use to raise social assistance rates and we know that political parties fear them all since rates have fallen so far, it would take billions of dollars to raise them to a level where they would derive any political credit for doing so.

For example, if the provincial government were to restore rates to 1993 levels, the Ontario Works (OW) single rate would have to climb by 67% from $733 a month to $1,108 a month. Similarly, ODSP would also have to climb by 67% from $930 to $1554 a month.

So, let’s not go there as we know that no government is going to raise rates by 67%.

Let’s really lower the bar and ask any political party to pledge to raise rates by inflation to the amount Mike Harris cut them to in 1995.

If that pledge was made, the OW single rate would climb by 16.2% from $733 a month to $852 a month. And let’s make it even easier a pledge by asking for a similar 16.2% increase to ODSP to take the single rate from $1,169 to $1,359 a month.

A 16.2 % increase would not raise the number of people receiving assistance as social assistance is not an attractive alternative to minimum wages and Ontario faces a problem of labour shortages that is perhaps as important as the problem of unemployment.

In fact, since the beginning of the pandemic in April 2020, the number of social assistance beneficiaries has fallen by 15% or over 146,000 beneficiaries in October 2021.

The 838,271 people receiving assistance in October 2021 represent 1 in 18 Ontarians and 5.7% of the population – a new 9 year low even as our population increased by over 1.4 million since 2012.  

Accordingly, a 16.2% increase could be fully funded by the money saved by paying fewer people since the pandemic’s onset.  

With ‘life stabilization’ now at the centre of what is known as social assistance transformation, a 16.2% increase – $119 more per month for a single OW recipient and $189 a month for a single ODSP recipient – could help.

Where I live in North Scarborough, the lowest advertised rent for a shared room in an illegal rooming house is $500 a month. A reasonable diet costs over $200 a month (the threadbare welfare diet costs $187). This leaves $33 left over for a phone, internet, clothing, utensils, transit, personal care and everything else.

In other words, the extra $33 now paid in addition to the cheapest room and a sketchy diet is impossible. An extra $119 a month would mean a little less destitution but the impossible would at least become remotely conceivable.

Let’s see if anyone running for office steps up and promises ‘16.2 in ‘22’

John Stapleton: December 28, 2021- with Thanks to Trevor Manson

Postscript:

In 1938, Premier Mitch Hepburn authorized a massive review of ‘relief’ recipients who were suspected of fraudulently receiving public assistance. Possession of three items could get you kicked off benefits: a telephone, a radio, and/or a vehicle. In other words, one’s means to communicate with the world, hear about the world, or to get to the world – were considered illicit.

Today, things are different. We want people to join the world as opposed to being cut off from it. But in a strange way, we have reinforced the reality of 1938 through benefit rates that have the same isolating effects mandated by government over 80 years ago.


[1] Bob Dylan, Desolation Row, Recorded August 5 1965, Highway 61 Revisited