Guest Blog from Tess: When your child turns 18 on a low income: Three big changes for a lone parent

This guest blog from Tess underscores the problems faced by families living on a low income in subsidized housing. It goes back to an essay I wrote for Metcalf titled ‘Why is it so tough to get ahead?’ While today’s parents know that their children may have to live with them long past the age of 18, our social welfare institutions continue to adhere to the Age of Majority Act that was passed into law 44 years ago, a time when many 18 year olds could realistically pursue independence.//js 

This month my relationship with three policy programs is going to change.  I have not done anything myself to alter these relationships.  The lived circumstances of my life have not changed.  Rather, my son, Troy (pseudonym) celebrates his 18th birthday. These changes will have a dramatic impact on my family.

The most noticeable change will be the cessation of the federal and provincial child tax credits.  For a single, low-income mother, this is a significant share of our family’s income.

Currently, I am in receipt of Ontario Works and I am also marginally employed.  In addition to my child tax credit, my Ontario Works entitlement will also change as a result of this birthday.  Specifically, Troy will now be considered an adult and my family will move from the sole support parent caseload to the ‘single persons’ caseload.  A new worker will be assigned to us.  Our monthly entitlement will increase which will somewhat offset the loss of our monthly child tax credits, but not fully.  The change in income is still significant and will be felt in our quality of life.

But the most important change is that up until Troy turned 18, any of his earnings were fully exempt income; after turning 18, they are not.  Until he turns 18, Troy could choose to save his earnings (for post-secondary education, for example), or spend it as he deemed fit.

Had Troy chosen to attend post secondary school directly after completing high school, his earnings would continue to be exempt.  However, Troy chose to take a gap-year so that he could work in order to pay for music lessons.  Troy is a talented musician and wants to attend a post-secondary program in musical composition.

However, he must audition and attain a certain level of excellence in musical theory and advanced practical aptitude in order to qualify for the post secondary program.  And because we lived in poverty throughout Troy’s primary and secondary schooling, he did not receive music education that fully met his needs.

We could only access adequate music instruction if I paid for it privately.  This was not always possible.  In order to afford the education he needs to get into the post-secondary program of his choice, Troy has decided to work.

Since Troy is working instead of being in school, a portion of his earnings will be deducted from our Ontario Works entitlement.  Between Troy’s earnings and my own, our total income may cause us to no longer be eligible for income from Ontario Works.

Should we reach this OW threshold, our rent in subsidized housing will no longer be set at the pay-scales for OW recipients.  Therefore, Troy’s 18th birthday will cause a change in my family’s relationship with a third policy program: Rent-Geared-to-Income housing.  For the first time, Troy’s income will be taken into account when determining my family’s rent.  Our rent will be raised by 30% of Troy’s income.

These deductions and accounting of Troy’s earnings from our monthly family income assume that our collective earnings are distributed equally within our family.  This is a drastic change in the policy assumptions of how our family works and is causing a drastic change in our family dynamics.

Previously, I held control of our family finances.  When Troy turns 18, I will have to depend on him to contribute a portion of his earnings toward groceries and household expenses in order to offset the deductions of Ontario Works.  I will have to depend on him to contribute 30% of his earnings toward rent to offset any rent increase.

But since we have a parent-child relationship that will not instantaneously change on his birthday, Troy could interpret my requests for such large chunks of his income as parental demands, not a social policy change.  Further, he will certainly regard such demands as unfair and unreasonable in their magnitude.  This will certainly create friction in my relationship with my son.

Beyond our personal family dynamics, the above three changes mean that Troy and I may still not be able to afford the education he requires to qualify for his post-secondary program.  His earnings may be deducted too aggressively and we will have no support in the form of child tax credits.

Consequently, Troy will be relying upon the kindness of extended family members to house and feed him while he works and concentrates on his musical education for one year.  Fortunately, we are privileged to have this support.  However, I question the fairness of my son and I being forced to live separately so that he can use his income to help him get into school.

We are being forced to live apart because we live in poverty.  It is not uncommon for families of means to have a dependent adult in their household well into his or her twenties.   Young adults may not be children, but they still deserve support as they embark on their adult lives.  Such support may make the difference in breaking the cycle of poverty for the next generation.


Tess: January 13, 2015