An insiders’ grim portrait of life on social assistance in Ontario

You are still dealing with the consequences of your recent accident and your doctor has given a prognosis of a long and only partial recovery.

You have run out of savings, run out of Employment Insurance (EI) and short-term disability and are now in the Ontario Works (OW) program, surreally expected to survive on $733 per month. You rely on the sustenance of food banks and are about to lose your housing.

With support from your health care professionals, you recently applied to the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) to be recognized as the newly disabled person that you are. ODSP would have provided you with $1,169 per month.

Nightmarishly, your application was rejected. Instead, you were sent to a mandatory rehab program and referred to a Toronto housing worker as part of Ontario’s newly introduced “life stabilization services.” The rehab program only increases your pain and stress levels, and your housing worker has no access to the only solution that could work for you: a rent-geared-to-income unit.

The housing worker is vague about the housing allowance you might get to rent a unit in the private market. And no landlord trusts your finances to accept your applications. You are aware of your growing suicidal ideation. Dignity is cut in pieces. Life cannot be stabilized at $733 per month.

Fast forward to a painful few weeks later and you are now told that you are scheduled to be assessed on your “ability to work.” You will speak with an employee of a private multinational company, which will receive more funding if you accept a job, and incrementally more if their close monitoring of your life shows that you have been retained by your employer for more than three, six or 12 months.

You are aware of the parallels with how private companies treated residents of long-term care facilities during the pandemic and you can easily infer that your assessor will not have been hired to respect your right to self-determination or to even retain your dignity.

This is where we are going under the province’s “Recovery/Renewal of Social Assistance.” We have to stop it.

Our social assistance system in 2019 was deemed fundamentally flawed by the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The province has shamelessly made money off of social assistance clients during the pandemic by clawing back federal emergency benefits, cancelling $100 per month in provincial emergency support, and by silently watching as case files inexplicably dropped by almost 115,000 beneficiaries.

Ontario has been using the pandemic as a diversion to fast-track irreparably damaging changes to both social assistance and employment services. The changes started with “prototypes” that we expected to be independently evaluated.

Instead, we see direct implementation with a downloading and fragmenting of responsibilities away from the province. We see a widely open door to the privatization of social services that our new minister of Children, Community, and Social Services supports, despite her deadly failure in long-term care, her recent area of responsibility.

There has been no proper engagement of the people most impacted by the changes, despite their right to participate in such decisions.

The rhetoric used to legitimize the changes is one of support and inclusion while the reality is a mindset of paternalism, mistrust and exclusion, infused with a workfare ethos. We are entering a new level of structural oppression and violence.

You are disabled. You don’t need any more misunderstanding, confusion, gaslighting, pressure, coercion, unaccommodating employers, or monitoring of your employment. You already submit to the 800 rules of ODSP.

Social assistance applicants and clients need the dignity of a living income through a rate increase to at least the amount paid during the Ontario Basic Income Pilot Project. Better yet, why not just implement a basic income floor and let us choose the rehabilitation, training and employment support we feel would help us the most?