BY GARY BLOCH, GUEST COLUMNIST
Premier Doug Ford and MPP Lisa MacLeod, you are right: the social assistance system is broken. We have known that for a long time. You are also right that the previous Ontario government had 15 years to fix it and allowed that broken system to continue for far too long.
I see the results of the broken system every day in my family medicine office. People who come to see me with illnesses caused by or worsened by living in dire poverty, without the supports they need to get out of poverty. People who, despite every desire to be fully integrated into the work force and regular social life, are forced to spend all their time struggling for basic necessities: food to fill their stomachs, shelter for the night.
I have spent years fighting that system and its brokenness — through protests, meetings, writing and sharing my patients’ stories. And I continue to feel the need for reform is urgent.
In those years of fighting, however, I saw one ray of light: I was asked by the Ministry of Community and Social Services to join a group of experts to come up with recommendations to make the income security system better. I almost said no, out of fear this process was going to be used to shield the government from criticism and delay the changes needed.
But when I came into the room and saw the diverse, non-partisan, group being asked to carry out this task — people who live on social assistance and who work for social assistance; people with expertise in business, health, law and social policy — I agreed to take part.
And what we produced was groundbreaking: the Roadmap for Change (www.ontario.ca/incomesecurity) offers a clear, stepwise path toward an income security system that focuses on maximizing people’s ability to work, to function in society and to live without feeling like they are balanced on the edge of a precipice of survival. It also proposes a system that will allow social services workers to focus on their clients’ barriers to getting out of poverty and to entering the workforce, rather than on paperwork and enforcing hundreds of regulations.
Perhaps most important, it proposes a system that will take pressure off of our social support system and off of our health system. As people are better able to avoid sinking into desperate poverty, their health will improve and their social support needs will lessen. We are all concerned with the cost of poverty to Ontario (last estimated at $36 billion per year) and the Roadmap offers a clear path to reducing those costs.
The first step in realizing the Roadmap’s vision was the package of regulation changes and slightly above inflation social assistance rate increases that were passed before the election. These changes were designed to remove some of the most egregious barriers to getting out of poverty that our system imposes: allowing them to participate more easily in the workforce, to keep some retirement savings intact and to ensure those who are most vulnerable within the system are properly supported.
It was a mistake to cancel those changes, but I hold out hope you will use the next 100 days to design a system that is consistent with the Roadmap’s vision. We have been waiting for a long time for a system that supports those who are most vulnerable to take part as fully as possible in our society, and that takes the avoidable toll of poverty off our social system, our health system, and our conscience. The Roadmap for Change is ready to take us there.
Gary Bloch is a family physician in Toronto, and a member of the Income Security Reform Working Group.