Income Security Reform in Ontario (Ottawa, Dec 5)

Discussion on Income Security Reform in Ontario
with Special Guest
George Thomson

Tuesday, December 5, 2017; 12:00 noon to 1:30 pm

REPORT

Pearson Centre Discussion on Income Security Reform in Ontario

By Terrance Hunsley, Senior Fellow, The Pearson Centre

On December 5, 2017; The Pearson Centre welcomed George Thomson to talk about the recently-tabled report of the advisory groups to the Ontario government, on income security reform. We were hosted by the Somerset West Community Health Centre in Ottawa. George Thomson was appointed to facilitate one of the three groups appointed. The other two dealt with aboriginal peoples on and off reserves, and all recommendations were endorsed by all three groups.

The report presented a ten-year plan for achieving guaranteed income adequacy for all people in Ontario. It was basically a plan to eliminate poverty, and to start by helping the most disadvantaged people first. To clarify the income adequacy target, they chose the Statistics Canada Low Income Measure (LIM); which is based on fifty percent of the median income, adjusted for family size.

The groups chose an approach which takes in all parts and programs of the very complex and constantly changing system. The entire income security system, composing all levels of government, currently spends some $65B annually in Ontario. Of this amount, about $9B is spent by the Province on social assistance, including people with disabilities. This is where the group identified that improvements should begin. Over the course of ten years, they feel that the province should cooperate with the federal government, such that all aspects of the system can be coordinated. (It is worth noting that almost $50B of the $65B being spent annually is coming from federal sources.)

Thomson pointed out that the federal government has already taken very positive action on the Canada Child Benefit, which has taken many children out of poverty. In contrast, basic social assistance for an individual, including the housing allowance, is currently $721 per month, or 34% of what a full time job at $15/hr would yield. If the rate that existed in the 1980’s had not been reduced, and had been adjusted annually to inflation, it would now be $1012. His group has suggested that as a first step, about half of that gap should be made up. As well, the administratively burdensome task of verifying monthly the housing costs of those who receive the housing allowance, should be eliminated, folding that amount into the basic benefit.

The cost of these first steps was estimated in the range of $2B per year, or a 20-25% immediate spending increase. The group was trying to identify a first step which would be a significant benefit to the poorest in the province, but not so much that it would be rejected out of hand as too expensive. They felt that the next important step would be to work with the federal government on the national housing strategy to develop an effective and portable housing subsidy.

For subsequent years, the group recommended working with the federal government to increase the Working Income Tax Benefit, and increasing coverage of health and pharmacare benefits.

The overall approach would be to use all components of the current system to work toward income adequacy over the ten years, based on a human rights approach, respecting dignity, and eliminating coercive administration and verification in favour of providing individual help.

In response to an anticipated question, “Why not switch to a Basic Income approach?”, Thomson said that nothing in their approach was inconsistent with an integrated basic income. However, he pointed out that it will be several years before the basic income experiments are concluded and behaviour and quality of life changes are evaluated. His group wanted action to be taken now, and to achieve that requires using the tools at hand. He also noted that the group supported the recommendation that adequate resources be provided to indigenous peoples’ organizations to permit them to develop and implement their own programs.

The Ontario government has promised to respond soon to the report and to develop a multiyear plan for improvements. Thomson suggested that that response, and the actions included the upcoming budget proposals, will be an important signal of how far the government is willing to go to bring about income adequacy.

George Thomson: In 1972, Mr.Thomson was appointed a judge of the Provincial Court for the Province of Ontario. Subsequently, he was appointed Associate Deputy Minister of Community and Social Services, responsible for children’s services. Mr. Thomson returned to the bench, and then, from 1985-1989, he was the Director of Education for the Law Society of Upper Canada and also chaired a provincial committee on social assistance reform. In 1989, he became Deputy Minister of Citizenship for the Province of Ontario, followed by appointments as Deputy Minister of Labour, and Ontario Deputy Attorney General. Mr. Thomson was then Deputy Minister of Justice and Deputy Attorney General of Canada from 1994-1998. After a term as Skelton-Clark fellow at Queen’s University, he assumed the position of Executive Director of the National Judicial Institute in 2000. In 2006, he became Senior Director, International Programs for the Institute. He also chaired Ontario’s Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform.

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