Low-income Ontarians are facing uncertain times as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. In particular, people are worried about being able to meet their basic needs while living on social assistance – and stay healthy.
Across Ontario, recipients of Ontario Works (OW) and the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) are calling on the provincial government to implement changes to allow them to access federal emergency income support benefits and to increase social assistance rates.
“Living on a low income is a vicious circle of worries…You worry you are going to lose income, you are going to lose your housing, you worry you’re are going to be homeless, you worry you will get sick… This is all made worse during a pandemic,” says Claude Wittmann, a housing advocate in Toronto and member of the advocacy group Defend Disability. He is also an ODSP recipient.
Wittman is one of the 75,000 individuals on social assistance who reports earned income. He was planning on applying for the Canada Emergency Relief Benefit (CERB), but says he is waiting to do so because of concerns that any monies he receives through it would be clawed back.
Any income someone on OW or ODSP receives from sources other than employment can be deducted from their social assistance benefits. And until recently, federal COVID-19 emergency benefits could be deducted dollar- for- dollar, cutting recipients off from their primary source of income support.
Advocates are urging the provincial government to allow people on social assistance who work on a part-time basis to keep any monies they might get through the CERB – which provides individuals who earned at least $5,000 in the past year and lost their job because of the pandemic with $2000 per month for a period of four months.
The province recently announced that it will grant a partial exemption of CERB payments for recipients of social assistance by treating CERB as earned income. For those on OW or ODSP, this means the first $200 of CERB payments and 50 per cent of each additional dollar received per month will be exempt from any deductions. If an ODSP recipient receives $1169 per month and qualifies for the $2000 CERB, ODSP would deduct $900, leaving them with $269, plus the $2000 from the CERB. This means the recipient would get $2269 per month as opposed to $1169.
The Ministry has also clarified that those who qualify for the CERB partial exemption, but become financially ineligible for either OW or ODSP as a result, will not lose access to health benefits. These recipients will stay on social assistance, being paid a nominal amount, to ensure they can access health benefits.
For people who applied for OW after March 1, any payments received through CERB will not be exempt when assessing their eligibility for social assistance. This means they may not qualify for OW but will keep the money they receive from CERB.
Wittman says while it is positive the government is not going to claw back CERB benefits entirely, it is problematic that they are choosing not to exempt the benefits from any deductions.
“In the end, the Ontario government is using an emergency benefit supposed to help individuals who struggle financially to fill its own coffers,” says Wittman.
And the health risks of inadequate income security programs will be felt by all Ontarians, warn health practitioners.
“Highly infectious diseases like COVID-19 will thrive when individuals don’t have the financial means to live independently…this means more spread, more illness and more deaths for all Ontarians” says Jonathon Herriot, a family physician in Toronto and co-chair of advocacy group Health Providers Against Poverty.
For many social assistance recipients, it can be a struggle to secure adequate housing and purchase cleaning products during the best of times. In the midst of a pandemic, those challenges are even more pronounced. Advocates say the government should not be looking for ways to cut off income supports but looking to enhance them.
Arash Ghiassi, a lawyer at the Income Security and Advocacy Centre in Toronto, says the province should be re-investing the money to raise social assistance rates during the pandemic to assist low-income Ontarians who may not qualify for CERB or EI.
“This is money is intended for all Canadians to cope with the COVID-19 situation, it is not intended for the province to use for other purposes. So, while the province has made the decision to partially claw back the CERB, it has also made a commitment to re-invest any savings that come from that back into social assistance…It should go towards raising social assistance rates across the board,” says Ghiassi.
Advocates say action is needed now to ensure that people can access the income they need to survive during the pandemic.
“Income is the single most important social factor that contributes to the health of Ontarians… during this unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic, the devastating health impacts of poverty have become even more clear,” says Herriot.
Ghiassi says social assistance rates are keeping people in poverty at a time when access to stable income is crucial to preventing the spread of COVID-19. He says the government has not been responsive to the needs of low-income residents.
“Ontario’s response so far has been to provide recipients with pocket change in the form of discretionary benefits that are inadequate, inefficient, and hard to access,” says Ghiassi.
The province has announced that people on social assistance can access discretionary benefits to help afford additional costs during the pandemic. But advocates say these aren’t readily accessible and don’t go far enough to help people meet their basic needs.
A single individual receiving either OW or ODSP is eligible to receive an additional $100 benefit to help with costs associated with COVID-19. Families on social assistance can get $200. These are one-time payments and are available until the end of April. In order to access these benefits, a recipient has to contact their caseworker and request the extra money. Ministry spokesperson Kristen Tedesco says the discretionary amounts are “determined locally for one-time exceptional costs base on need.”
Advocates say this discretionary benefit opens to the door to unequal access and doesn’t provide the degree of continuous financial support that low-income Ontarians need.
Kyle Vose, co-chair of the advocacy ground ODSP Action Coalition, says many people on ODSP and OW aren’t even aware these discretionary benefits are available.
“People might not even know they could get this. From what we’re hearing, this isn’t being publicized as widely, so the people that could use this help – however small and short-term it is – might not even know it’s out there,” says Vose.
If an individual doesn’t have access to a phone or internet service, they may be unable to access a benefit that is meant for them.
Andrea Hatala is an ODSP recipient in Toronto. She says it’s hard to get in touch with caseworkers at a time when many offices are closed down because of pandemic. She has had difficulty trying to contact her caseworker by phone and says this is likely a common problem for many others trying to navigate daily life under quarantine.
Across Canada, there is variability. The Yukon government is still clawing back CERB dollar-for-dollar. British Columbia, on the other hand, has introduced changes that advocates in Ontario say should be a guideline for the province’s ongoing COVID-19 response. Earlier this month, British Columbia exempted EI and CERB benefits from being clawed back for social assistance recipients who lost their jobs because of the pandemic. The province also announced increased social assistance benefits, raising the monthly amount by $300.
“British Columbia made the right decision to exempt EI and CERB from claw-backs, says Ghiassi. “These benefits are meant to support all Canadians through this crisis. They are not meant for provincial coffers.”