By MPP Toby Barrett

At a cost of $10 billion a year, Ontario supports 600,000 people on Ontario Works (OW) and the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP). However, Ontario’s Auditor General recently highlighted the current system has not been working well for social assistance recipients. Only one per cent were finding employment every month, and that was before the pandemic.

That is why Ontario is undertaking the first meaningful reform of social assistance since the introduction of OW and ODSP. We worked for months with municipalities to design our new vision for social assistance, and in February, we introduced Recovery and Renewal: Ontario’s Vision for Social Assistance Transformation. Bringing this shared vision to life will mean contracting people to the supports they need and steering them to a path of greater independence and helping them remain on that path.

At the core of this plan is a new provincial-municipal delivery model for social assistance that looks at roles that are not along the traditional program lines, but around which government can best provide the service to get the best results. The province will focus on overseeing financial assistance, making it quick and easy for eligible individuals to access the system. At the same time, our municipal partners can use their expertise in delivering person-centred casework and their knowledge of local community resources to provide the very best supports.

Our plan is bold because the times require it to be. Recently, the Legislature passed Bill 276, the Supporting Recovery and Competitiveness Act, 2021, which included amendments to the Ontario Works Act that will enable improvements as we move through co-design with our municipal partners. The Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development has also launched three prototypes to strengthen employment services for those on assistance.

Certainly, my contacts and visits to local businesses and industry tell me they cannot find people to work. We need to ensure people have the supports to allow them to get to work. Maybe folks need a new pair of work boots, tools, a ride to work or childcare. That one per cent really does underscore the need to change in order to make the system more integrated and help more people move toward a better life.

The length of time people receive Ontario Works has been increasing at far too dramatic a rate. In 2010, the average was 18 to 21 months. This has now increased to 43 months. It was never meant to be that way. It was meant to be a safety net to get people back to work.

The case for change is clear. We know the current system leaves caseworkers focussing on paperwork and administration at the expense of casework that leads to employment. Often relationships are built around policing and fear instead of trust and support. Our programs are siloed and hard to navigate.

In October 2020, we launched a new, easy-to-use online application for social assistance and streamlined the process to apply. The social assistance digital application is available 24 hours a day and offers e-signature end electronic identification to reduce the need for citizens to travel into offices.

As we move forward, we will continue to work with our partners to bring our vision into focus. By working collaboratively with municipal and sector partners, we will create a system that helps move people toward employment and independence, and participate more fully in their communities.

Toby Barrett is the MPP for Haldimand-Norfolk