Hopes & What Works

What We Heard

While there is much in the social assistance system that needs to change, we also heard that there are a lot of positives that can be built on. These include the people on the system themselves, some programs both inside and outside government and some frontline workers who really make a difference. All of these things tell us that change is possible.

All the people we interviewed had hopes — for themselves, their children and their community. They want to work, be productive and contribute. In fact, many were already doing so in numerous ways. Many wanted to turn their own lived experience and knowledge into an asset by working to help others. Ultimately people wanted to live as independently as possible given their circumstances.

Not all people will be able to work full time and leave the social assistance system. “Success” needs to be redefined in terms of helping people attain their full potential. Many non-profit and government programs in the community are doing just that, and we can learn from these examples.

For those who need some ongoing support, there are systems in place that help them manage and achieve some level of independence. Transitional housing organizations such as Habourlight were mentioned for the help they provide in overcoming active addiction and in developing healthier life skills.

Some people with physical disabilities were grateful that there are sources of funding, such as the March of Dimes and Assistive Devices Program, that help them cover things they need that ODSP does not pay for.

A common theme for those whose goal was to leave the system was that third-party support was critical. This usually meant a non-profit organization or a charitable agency to help them navigate the system. Some people were utilizing third-party supports more than others. Many were unaware of supports that existed, whether through social assistance or from an outside agency. Having these supports made a great deal of positive differences in people’s lives.

Certain programs and supports were noted as beneficial depending on the needs of certain communities. For example, newcomers to Canada mentioned how the work training placement programs are helpful because they give Canadian experience and enable the building of networks that are often essential in landing employment.

For some people, a helpful worker made all the difference. Some really appreciated the support received from their Ontario Works or Ontario Disability Support Program caseworkers. For many, feeling like the worker was “on their side,” led to a more positive and productive relationship. In effect, the worker and client became a team. Another person mentioned how her worker frequently shared information in regards to any changes in the delivery of services, so the client had a heads up on what was happening and who to talk to.

As one Blueprinter said, “When a worker has that gift of treating a person with respect, compassion and dignity, you feel it, and you appreciate it by giving it back! In the end you walk out of the office feeling good about the visit and the decisions that were made.”

Suggested Changes

What We Heard

When we were originally recruiting participants for the People’s Blueprint, we asked interested applicants to respond to this question: If you had a magic wand, what three things would you change about social assistance in Ontario. Of approx. 200 applications, this is the breakdown of key words in the responses:
• Work/Employment/Job – 228
• Money/income – 138
• Clients/Workers – 131
• Housing – 91

The responses in the interviews were consistent with these results. People want good jobs and they want to contribute to their community. However they identify barriers and other issues that get in their way.

People regularly spoke about clawbacks on their earned income as being a major barrier – “50% leaves you shorthanded.” People would like to see the system help them make the transition to work, such as by maintaining benefits until you get back on your feet, which doesn’t necessarily happen right away.

People spoke about having adequate training programs that help them find the jobs they want. They also want to further themselves through higher education, and not denied getting this education due to restrictions around receiving the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) and receiving social assistance. For those with foreign credentials, it was requested there should be assistance with recertification.

In terms of income, people said that Ontario Works and Ontario Disability Support Program should be realistic, particularly about the cost of rent, food and transportation. “No rent in Toronto costs $350.” The money from social assistance does not provide what is necessary to live in a clean, safe environment.

People often referred to the need for more supportive caseworkers. A key ask was to stop making people feel so bad for getting assistance, as the shame and intimidation people feel already is strong. Many also mentioned the importance of “having someone we can talk to,” who can help people find a path to get to their goals. It was mentioned that it is very important for the worker to establish a trust with the client, when that happens the real benefits begin. This involves try to see who clients are and the type of needs they have, find out more of their likes, goals and talents. This also involves sharing more information on what social services have to offer.

In regards to housing, people spoke of the need for affordable, accessible housing, as well as allowing people to have more choice in regards to where they want to live. The issue of supportive housing for couples with disabilities was frequently raised.

Other key changes people wanted to see as they related to programs or services of social assistance included:
• Easing up on restrictions for people trying to go back to school to further their education. Financial assistance for education should take into consideration the specific challenges people with disabilities face.
• Assistance for those with criminal backgrounds in getting a pardon so they can enter the workforce.
• Understand the importance of and provide opportunities to access recreation.
• Provide access to transportation for everyone, in order to assist finding work.
• Access to communication, such as having a cell phone, should be mandatory.
• Increase asset limits and what people are allowed to save.
• Compensate those trying to upgrade their skills by attending workshops or training programs.

Questions For Discussion

1. What might be core principles of a renewed system of income support? What about specific tools, policies and approaches?
2. How can barriers to entering the labour market be addressed, particularly clawbacks and loss of benefits?
3. How could we ensure that social assistance benefits together with other income security programs amount to a decent standard of living? What are some possible standards of “a decent living”? What are some factors in determining this level?
4. What are the limits to what the present social assistance can provide with the changes people need?
5. How can lived experience and peer research continue to inform and guide the development of social policy? Are there opportunities for further work?


What We Heard

On the whole, peoples’ experience with their caseworker was negative. A minority of people were very happy with their caseworker, saying their worker helped them access resources and get back on their feet. But this seemed to depend on the “luck of the draw” – some workers were good, some were bad. In general the themes of inconsistency of information, fear, frustration, and a lack of being forthcoming about benefits and resources available were common. Interestingly, even when people had negative experiences, they would often acknowledge that issues arose not because of the workers themselves but rather the system the worker was trying to negotiate on their behalf.

People mentioned inconsistency with workers being switched, often without them being aware. Some mentioned having this occur numerous times within a very short period. This makes it more difficult to establish trust and be able to share more with a worker, which some respondents desired. However, others preferred not to have any contact unless absolutely required, to “stay under the radar.”

People often reported the feeling of being judged, or policed in an arbitrary way. Some felt that they were being spoken “down” to. People who were fearful often reported that they felt they were being interrogated, or being asked questions with an assumption of wrong doing. Some stated that there was fear about “not knowing what to say,” or saying the “wrong” thing. Often people reported feeling manipulated and intimidated into signing documents, particularly newcomers who are learning English and don’t yet understand the bureaucratic terminology.

The issue of “overpayments” often came up. People discussed the fear they felt when “form” letters are sent that state funds will be withheld because of missing information or documents. People mentioned that these letters are received even when it was the social assistance office who misplaced the form. Some mentioned that it was often not even clear from the letter why or how the overpayment occurred.

People often felt workers were not forthcoming with benefits to which they were entitled. People spoke about having to find out for themselves about benefits, such as a clothing allowance or community start-up assistance, and then ask. Overall, it was observed that people who had outside help in navigating the system usually did better than those who didn’t. Ultimately, people would like to be able to advocate for themselves.

Questions For Discussion

1. What are best practices in terms of providing front-line support in OW and ODSP offices? How can we ensure that best practices are standardized across the province?
2. How can we ensure that front line workers are sensitized to the broad issues impacting clients, including physical and psychiatric disability?
3. What is the appropriate role of front-line support? Is there a tension between the social worker role and the role of monitoring compliance?

Employment & Education

What We Heard

People receiving Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support Program people want good jobs and want to contribute to their communities, but the barriers they articulated are substantial and maddening. People said they felt trapped and stuck in their situation with “no clear path out.”

People receiving ODSP who have the potential to work are often fearful of the unknown, as they may be fine now but may not be in the future. Work, therefore, is a big risk. Clawbacks were identified as a huge barrier, often leaving people worse off, penalized for working (more about this in the video “Changes”). Others talk about the fear that if too much income is earned one month they will be cut off the following month, leaving them completely destitute. The “Linda Chamberlain Rule” was also referenced many times. Regardless of these fears, people find work to be rewarding, and would like to be working in some way as much as possible.

When social assistance offers training, even successful completion doesn’t provide the proper credentials people need. People spoke about their training programs not being recognized or accepted by employers as legitimate, so many do not get the kinds of jobs they had trained for. There appears to be a mismatch between the stated needs of people and the training available.

Immigrants for example often felt programs were below their capacities: that they did not need to learn computer basics or resume writing but help in finding employment in their fields in a new country.

People want access to higher education, especially those with physical challenges who need to work with their minds more than their bodies. Interactions involving OSAP and social assistance often restrict this opportunity to learn and grow and find pathways out of poverty. Many talk about the fear of taking loans and building a debt load when it is uncertain if a job exists at the end of program.

People are often told to take any job – the system is geared toward acceptance of the first job offered instead of supporting people to achieve sustainable employment that lifts their living standards. Jobs require higher education than is possible through short-term training programs offered through OW. Many people report “cycling” in and out of employment and education programs that do not lead to jobs, and leave them with rising debt loads as a reward for taking the risk.

Questions For Discussion

1. What are best practices in regards to training and employment? How can they be expanded across the province?
2. What are downsides and upsides to the “take any job” approach that we should consider? How can we design employment supports that provide pathways out of poverty.
3. What would it take to create “clear paths” that help people into good jobs?
4. What could be the role of social enterprise and local economic development as bridges to employment?
5. How do we match training and employment to individual needs and to available jobs? Where are good examples that we can draw upon?


What We Heard

The Blueprinters identified a number of themes around stigma, safety, sense of isolation and lack of connection to community, cost, long waiting lists, affect on family and social relationships and disrepair of units.

Many respondents referred to a lack of safety in their immediate community. Single parents said there are few recreational facilities available to keep children busy after school. Location is another identified issue, as housing is often on the outskirts of towns and cities, making it difficult to get to services, look for work, or attend social assistance appointments. For those attempting recovery from addiction or dealing with mental health issues, the housing that is usually affordable is situated in places which exacerbate these conditions or cause relapse. Isolation and need result in increased petty crime, leaving vulnerable people as the targets of break-ins and theft.

ssed the lack of housing for couples with disabilities. The assumption seems to be that people with disabilities are and always will be single. They also talked about the difficulty finding attendant care for couples as funding seems to be disability or building specific. Many married couples were resigned to the idea of living separately for years. Many people talked about the fear of living with a partner, because of losing their rent subsidies and having their overall incomes go down, as the couple OW and ODSP rates are less than double the single rate.
Shelter allowances in social assistance are far below the available rents, for example the maximum shelter for a single receiving Ontario Works is just over $350/month. The only housing available anywhere near that price range is a rooming house. Rent is always paid first before groceries and other expenses – those other needs come second and are constantly being cut due to housing costs.

Most respondents talked about long waiting lists for housing ie. 7-8 years often, particularly those with attendant care needs. There is a lack of choice – you are told where to go even if it’s far from where you want to be or in a “rough neighbourhood.” Quality of housing was often discussed, including the stigma associated with social housing – “government housing looks like government housing.” In general people do not want to live in social housing and would not if they had a choice.

Questions For Discussion

1. Should the cost of housing be specifically considered when setting benefit rates?
2. What is the right balance between building affordable housing and providing income benefits to support people in market rental housing?
3. What is the role of government, non-profit sector and private sector in delivering housing?
4. Why are couples in need of supportive housing having such difficulties?

Social Participation

What We Heard

Most respondents answered this question begrudgingly, because there is simply is no money for social activity. The clear implication is that fun is a luxury few can afford. Although many may say that entertainment is a luxury, the general lack of social participation leads to a whole host issues that work against people, including isolation, depression, and no opportunity for stress relief.

Lack of funds for transportation is a substantial barrier to participation in community events. As one person said, “Events are free, transportation is not free”.

For many newcomers with family back home, basic requirements such as food are sacrificed so phone calls can be made to loved ones. Parents said barriers exist for their children, as social assistance does not cover the cost of school trips.

For those who face barriers going out due to transportation costs or disability, cable T.V. was a sole form of entertainment. Others do manage to engage in low cost hobbies such as art, the occasional movie, or playing musical instruments.

For some, social participation is enabled through their volunteer work or through multi-service agencies which address practical needs to ensure people can attend. Many pointed to this as a positive that could be further developed.

Questions For Discussion

1. How can the non-profit sector and organizations providing volunteer hours or other opportunities further capitalize on their ability to provide social activities for people?
2. Is there a government role in supporting low-cost or free community activities? Non-profit organizations?
3. Where does transportation planning and policy fit in regards to improving people’s participation in their community?

Food & Health

What We Heard

Almost across the board respondents said they did not have enough money to afford the foods they needed for basic health, especially fresh fruit and vegetables. Most point to difficulty affording fresh food which is more expensive. Food is a flexible expense – people scaled back their purchases of food to cover other critical expenses, primarily rent. Many use the food bank as a way of increasing their disposable income. Most say the food they receive from food banks does not provide everything they need and tends to be high in salt and sugar. People were knowledgeable about food and nutrition but were not able to afford the foods they needed.

The connection between food and health was talked about regularly. Many questioned the sense of a system that forces people to eat poorly, only to have health problems emerge later. Others reported medical conditions requiring specific diets that were difficult to afford on their income. Programs such as the Special Diet Allowance help. An enormous concern for the fate of the program was expressed in the interviews.

Many people reported eating just one meal a day, particularly single adults who receive $592 per month in Ontario Works benefits. With food prices increasing by 7-8% this year, this situation will continue to worsen.

Questions For Discussion

1. Should food prices be specifically considered when setting benefit rates?
2. Are there other options we should consider in order to ensure people have
the food they need?
3. How should special dietary needs be dealt with in the system?


What We Heard

The shame and stigma associated with social assistance was an on-going theme. People spoke about stigma with respect to relationships with partners (or lack of relationship), coming onto assistance, working with one’s caseworker, finding employment, and access to housing.

Most often stigma was raised in terms of relationships, especially with partners, family and friends. With partners, stigma was often talked about in terms of power imbalances in relationships. This most often occurred with women, who discussed the dynamics of having to completely rely on a partner for income, and having no source of income on your own. Others talked about avoiding looking for a partner for that reason. “One, I don’t have a partner, two I don’t have money, three I don’t look because they want and I have nothing to give.”
A common theme revolved around the loss of friendships and other networks as a result of receiving social assistance. People talk about being a burden to friends, because they cannot afford to go out for dinner, coffee or any of the activities they often do with friends. Over time they’re come to be viewed as “a liability.” Eventually people find themselves surrounded by friends in the “same place,” with no role models of people moving forward and improving their lives. This is particularly true as affordable housing is often ghettoized. “When I went on social assistance people started looking down on me, avoiding me. I wasn’t included in a lot of things, mostly because I couldn’t afford them.”

A particular issue arose for people with disabilities, which was the stigma faced in the workplace. Many employers feel that people are going to be too difficult to accommodate or otherwise be a burden.

Generally people discuss stigma as it relates to their worker. “Some make you feel like you need to beg for services.” From the “glass partition” to the treatment of people by their worker (which will be further shown in the “Caseworkers” video) the stigma of the social assistance system was raised repeatedly in interviews and named by the Blueprinters in their analysis.

Questions For Discussion

1. What are the practical things that could be done to reduce stigma when people come to their welfare office for assistance?
2. Some say social assistance is by nature stigmatizing. What would a non-stigmatized system look like?
3. People often turn to family and friends to help them through difficult times. How can the system be designed to support people to do that rather than hinder it?
4. How can policy mitigate unequal gender relationships?