Thrown in the deep end: The strange history of Ontario’s social assistance for needy 60-64 year olds

In 1982, Bob McDonald, then deputy minister of Ontario’s Ministry of Community and Social Services, was called to a meeting arranged by Premier Bill Davis with a senior religious leader. The topic of the meeting was the low amount of money received in welfare payments by single women over age 60 who were either single or widows. At that time, needy women in that situation received a maximum of $266 a month ($700 today).

Following the meeting, it was clear from the deputy that the Premier wanted action. The social assistance policy branch of the day became involved.

Looking back at the history of these payments, it’s easy to see why the Premier was concerned. The Widows and Unwed Women legislation had been folded into the Family Benefits Act in 1967 but when the GAINS (Guaranteed Annual Income System for the aged and disabled) was inaugurated in 1974, near aged non-disabled persons were not included.

In 1975, the Spouses Allowance program was ushered in by the federal government under Old Age Security legislation but did not include single women or widows.

Then the Charter of Rights and Freedoms was enacted in 1982 with its equality rights provisions to come into force on April 17, 1985. Discrimination along the lines of marital status would not be allowed within three short years. Something was going to happen for single and widowed women in any event. Why not get it under way early?

No one knew in 1982 that Spouses Allowances would be extended to widows and widowers in 1985 as part of a sweeping review of the Charter of Rights, although the recently deceased Charter expert Peter Hogg told a meeting of policy analysts at Queens Park something to the effect that “you won’t be able to discriminate like that after April 17, 1985 so best to do something before you find yourself in Court”.

By early 1983, Minister Frank Drea announced the extension of the GAINS program to all needy 60-64 year old women. As Mr. Drea put it, “We’re going to help the widows”.

With a further Charter review and many widows newly eligible for Spouse Allowance in 1985, single men and widowers were later added to GAINS eligibility. By 1993, all needy non- disabled 60-64 year old single men and women, widows and widowers, were included in the GAINS program and received a maximum of $930 a month (in 1993 dollars).

From 1982 to 1993, their maximum allowances went up by an astonishing 250% in nominal terms and 130% taking inflation into account.

Although needs tested, the $930 monthly payment was not too much under what a single senior would receive in the same year when the GAINS guarantee was $1,041 a month ($875 in OAS/GIS and $83 in the GAINS supplement).

But 1993 proved to be the high water mark. And the history of Ontario payments to 60-64 year old single people without resources (and without a spouse who predeceased them) is nothing short of breathtaking.

In 1995, newly elected Premier Mike Harris ordered a 21.6% rate cut to non-disabled social assistance recipients. Although the 60-64 year olds were protected by the GAINS provisions, it became clear in 1997, that 60-64 year olds would not be included in the new ODSP legislation that came into force in 1998.

But no one personally saw a rate cut for 60-64 year olds. The people then in the category were grandfathered* and somewhat painlessly graduated to Old Age Security on their 65th birthdays from 1998 to 2003, paralleling the 5 year period between one’s 60th and 65th birthday.

All newly eligible 60-64 year olds received the Ontario Works (OW) rate of $520 a month, a rate cut of 44%.  But no actual recipient experienced the cut.  Consequently, there was little public outcry that was not subsumed within the ongoing criticism of the 1995 cuts.

And so the die was cast.

There were no increases between 1995 and 2004 and the Liberal governments of Dalton McGuinty and Kathleen Wynne found themselves unable to reverse either the nominal or real cuts to the OW program. The Ford government boosted rates by 1.5% in 2018 to $733 a month and did not raise rates in 2019 despite the fact that, with inflation and indexation, the current rate would now be $753 a month if in line with inflation from 2017. The OW single rate continues to fall further and further behind.

So what does it mean to have a single social assistance rate for single 60-64 year olds of $733 a month?

It means that the benefit rate since 1993 has dropped by more than half. If the $930 a month rate had been kept up to date with inflation since 1993, the rate would now be $1,473 a month.

This situation has three implications for policy and policymakers. The first is the obvious point that as a society, we have left needy people, well into middle age, on the doorstep of destitution. They can’t pay their rents and the simple math tells us that they are food insecure and unless they have found subsidized housing (and most haven’t), they are at the precipice of homelessness if they aren’t already unhoused.

The second is that we conveniently ignore their human rights under the Charter and other human rights legislation. Unless widowed or living with another person as a spouse, they are ineligible for federal income security benefits; so much for stopping discrimination on the grounds of marital status. One supposes that having been widowed means that you need an 89% increment in benefits ($1,389 in Widowed Spouses Allowance vs. $733 in Ontario Works).

The third is the policy dilemma that faces our complex retirement income system. Many nations have begun to move their age of retirement upwards in the recognition of demographic realities, pension inequities, and workforce participation among seniors following the abolition of mandatory retirement (in Ontario: 2006).

We therefore should be able to move the age of retirement northward painlessly. But we cannot as the confluence of federal and provincial policies has caused an almost wholesale attenuation of benefits to the current cadre of near seniors.

The current reality is that if we moved the retirement age in Canada to age 67 as Mr. Harper tried and failed, a whole new cohort of 65 and 66 year olds in need would face a maximum monthly stipend of $733 for 24 more months instead of the maximum of $1,674.91 (not including refundable credits) received by current 65 and 66 year olds without outside income.

That would represent a cut of $942 a month or $22,605 over a 24 month period and an amount that is impossible to justify in policy terms or any other terms. If we do reform our retirement income system, we will be forced to address the single unmarried 60-64 year old dilemma.

In writing this blog, I began to feel that there are also some larger invisible forces not dissimilar to those contained in Margaret Atwood’s Massey Lecture: “Payback”.

The large increases sustained by three different provincial governments in the 1980’s and 1990’s were literally dismantled in the 26 years following 1993. It’s almost as if there was a Faustian deal between Governments and the Gods of social security to nullify the gains made and return a benefit structure to what it was, almost as if the increases were somehow wrongheaded.

What did Christopher Marlowe know that we do not know now?

And finally, is there any sort of silver lining? Not really – unless you count the smiles on the faces of 64 year old OW recipients who attend my low income retirement seminars who realize that their benefits at 65 are going to go up by 129 per cent.

* Grandfathering refers to the rule that allowed poor white men to vote in the post-civil war period in the US even though they failed literacy tests designed to exclude black voters, as long as their grandfathers had the right to vote in the pre-civil war era. The grandfather rule excluded black men as none of their grandfathers could vote prior to the civil war.