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Looking back at what (may) be ahead: Reduced non-income benefits for recipients of ODSP

As I wrote in my last post, details of the Ontario government’s reform of social assistance – and the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP), specifically – are unclear.

A large anxiety around social assistance reform is understandably focused around  assistance rates – that is, the actual dollars recipients receive.

Yet as Ricardo Tranjan of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives writes in the Behind the Numbers blog, “It appears that the current government’s plan is more sophisticated but equally perverse to that of the previous Harris government: it aims to push social assistance recipients with disabilities into a cheaper program with fewer supports.”

But what are “cheaper programs”? Here, a little history goes a long way to understanding what may be ahead.

As of December 31st 2012, the (then) Liberal government of Dalton McGuinty ceased the Community Start Up and Maintenance Benefit (CSUMB). This was in addition to the removal of payment of some home repair costs (at the same time), and the prior removal of the Back to School and Winter Clothing Allowance back in 2008.

The CSUMB enabled single recipients to receive $799 and families $1500 every two years for benefits such as establishing a place to live and preventing eviction and the shut off of essential utilities, among others.

In its place, 50 percent of the funds were disbursed to municipalities. The Province also provided one-time funding of $42 million; this was rolled into the Community Homelessness Prevention Initiative that, “[Combines] funding from former separate housing and homelessness programs into a single flexible program [that] can be used [...] to address local priorities and better meet the needs of individuals and families who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless in their local communities.”

Yet as the Income Security Advocacy Centre cautioned at the time, “There is no guarantee that the money will be paid in direct assistance to people who need the funds. Municipalities may decide that their own local needs are different, and use the money to pay for shelter programs, seniors housing, or other, equally important programs – but not for direct payments.”

The policy direction away from direct payments is one that has long frustrated anti-poverty activists – which is why there was some measured optimism regarding the now-cancelled Basic Income Pilot.

While I do not wish to suggest that a basic income is a silver bullet, it does point to the value in providing people with lower incomes additional funds that they may use to meet their most pressing needs.

So, if CSUMB is lost, there’s nothing else to lose, right?

Not exactly.

There are a range of other direct benefits that are currently available to recipients of ODSP. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Employment and Training Start Up Benefit (ESUB) & Up -Front Child Care Benefit – Up to $500/month every 12 months to “help recipients begin and change employment” and reimbursement of “up-front” and “reasonably neccessary” childcare costs

  • Heating costs, “If the heating costs alone exceed the maximum shelter allowance the amount payable will be the actual cost of heating.”

  • Payment of the “consumer’s contribution” and professional assessment to receive eligible assistive devices under the Assistive Devices Program

  • Employment Transition Benefit – A lump sum of $500 for “Recipients who exit Income Support due to income from employment, training, or operation of a business”.

It remains to be seen if these will remain benefits directed to recipients, or disbursed to separate programs with their own varying (and potentially watered-down) criteria.

Other benefits (such as drug and dental, among others) may be merged into “health spending accounts”. As I noted in my last post, “[A] block [grant] can be good – provided the the money lasts”.

As it stands, recipients are entitled to various benefits.

Now, the government may be more selective about what those benefits are, circumstances in which recipients may access them, and funding available to provide these benefits.

Reform may, in the end, be a matter of “robbing Peter to pay Paul”.

Details are still unclear, it’s true – but the past can be a helpful compass, too.