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The Ontario Works Program and Ethnocultural Minorities

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The Welfare State in Canada is in need of reform to effectively achieve its mission. The Welfare State is a multi-billion dollar system of government programs that transfer money and services to Canadians to in order to assist with poverty, homelessness, unemployment, immigration, etc. (Mascovitch, 2006, Paragraph 1). It is essential to Canadian politics because the policies and programs help to reduce inequality, expand freedom, promote fellowship and democracy, and is ultimately viewed as an expression of humanity (Paragraph 1). Although social welfare is not specifically outlined in the Constitution Act of 1867, it was interpreted that “the legislative authority for social service has been divided between the federal and provincial governments which in turn meant that provinces have primary jurisdiction over social services” (Constitution Act, 1867, s.91). The major welfare state programs include Social Assistance, the Canada Child Tax Benefit, public education, social housing and social services, etc. Programs are funded and delivered by the federal, provincial and municipal governments (Paragraph 1).

The Welfare State Program that I will expound upon is the Social Assistance Program, Ontario Works (OW) in particular. The Ontario Works program which was initiated under the Ontario Works Act, 1997, is designed for people who are in financial need, but not deemed to have a long-lasting disability preventing employment. The principle of the act is “to establish a program that recognizes individuals responsibilities and promote self-reliance through employment, provide temporary financial assistance to those most in need while the satisfy obligation to become and remain employed; and to effectively serve people needing assistance” (Ontario Works Act, 1997). Ontario Works is in collaboration with the government of Ontario, who is represented by the Director of Ontario Works, and municipal cities, who are represented by Delivery Agents. Eighty percent of social assistance payments and fifty percent of the administrative cost is covered by the provincial government, while the remaining percentage is covered by its respected municipality (Welfare Law, 2016, Chapter 1).

One criticism of the Ontario Works program is that it fails to account for intersectionality and ethnocultural minorities, therefore undermining the hardship that they face in seeking and obtaining gainful employment. Further, by enforcing strenuous eligibility requirements and a very limited asset-earning capacity, the program keeps its participants below the poverty line, forcing them to occupy positions that are inconsistent to their capabilities, education, expected way of life, and desired earning potential. This, in turn, creates a cycle that prolongs the time that it takes for ethnocultural minorities to effectively integrate into the Canadian social and economic society, thus producing an intergenerational dependence on the social welfare system versus self-reliance.

OW provides a basic financial income for the purpose of basic needs (food, clothing and personal) and shelter. The amount of funding that a single household receives for their basic necessities is approximately $585 month and $649 for families. It is impossible for a single person to live on this amount of money in any city in Ontario, much less to support a family. While millions of people from across Ontario makes use of the Ontario Works Program, I will use Toronto, the largest municipality in Ontario, as an example to better illustrate my point. In order to qualify for basic financial assistance, individuals must actively seek to attain gainful employment or currently registered in a training program. Given that 62% of all persons in poverty in Toronto are from racialized groups, 66% of which are immigrants (Employment Canada, 2006), this eligibility criteria undermines the systemic oppression faced by these marginalized groups and the true challenges that they encounter against employment. Racism and sexism often play an imminent role in diminishing the abilities of minorities. It can be as overt as judging an individual by their cultural attire or that they “talk funny” or as subtle as expressing surprise when one is able to conduct themselves professionally in any given situation (Saraswati, 2000, page 49). In addition to these disadvantages, language presents itself as a barrier for minorities, making it difficult to not only seek employment but to sign up for social assistance or training programs (52). Nonetheless, the Ontario Works Act further stipulates that “eligible employable persons are encouraged or required to pursue, accept, and retain any reasonable offer of employment as an initial and continuing eligibility for social assistance”. While trying to keep up with these mandates, minorities, who are more vulnerable than non-racialized individuals, are subjected to pursuing jobs that are considered “the jobs that no Canadians wants to do”(53). Accepting these positions often jeopardizes their safety and humanity, while working harder and longer hours for less pay, no room for advancement, and without benefits (50). In addition to offering a monthly stipend, Ontario Works also work in partnership with providers to train OW recipients for jobs. By offering training for jobs in childcare, maintenance, housekeeping, construction, food services, and call centre services, the Ontario Works training program further instigates the stereotype that minorities are less likely to hold professional or managerial positions and are more likely to be in lower-paying service or manual labour positions (50). It also ignores the fact that 25% of racialized persons living in poverty have a higher level of education and can achieve more personally and financially if given the correct resources (Statistics Canada, 2006).

For recipients receiving Ontario Works, once employment is secured, regardless of if the income is sufficient to meet the needs of the recipient, the current Ontario Works policy sets an earning cap of $200 per month before benefits are reduced by fifty cents for every dollar earned. The policy further stipulates that a participant is deemed ineligible for funding if he/she has assets exceeding one month’s budgetary cap. The budgetary cap is the amount of income an individual receives from OW. Given that participants initially enter the program with no savings or assets, this cap inevitably means that they have limited opportunity to meet their needs and no room to accumulate any wealth. In this position, recipients have the option to either stay on OW and not find a job or they work multiple jobs to meet the needs of their family. In many cases a parent can be away from their families for long periods of times which can result in broken homes, mental health issues, to name a few. Having no room to accumulate income without being penalized increases the chance of minorities remaining in poverty and creates an intergenerational dependence on the system.

As per Oxford Dictionary, self-reliance is defined as reliance on one’s own powers and resources rather than those of others. The current Social Assistance Programs in Canada does not help recipients to become self- reliant. With this knowledge, in March 2016, the Ontario Liberal Government committed, in the Ontario Budget, to create a Basic Income Pilot Project to test a growing view at home and abroad that basic income could provide a new approach to reducing poverty in a sustainable way. In short, the program was expected to provide a monthly allowance regardless of employment status. The goal was to measure the outcome in areas of food security, stress and anxiety, mental health, health and healthcare usage, housing stability, education and training and employment and labour market participation (Ontario Basic Income, Page 1). However, in August 2018, the Ontario Conservative Government announced that they will be scrapping this initiative and will announce changes to Ontario Social Assistance at a later date. I believe that in order for the Ontario Works Program to help minorities to become self- reliant, the program must be scrapped and rebuilt. The new Ontario Works Program must include financial education, a top-up program, and skills matching sessions. The Canadian economy is built on credit. Good credit is required to obtain proper housing, to build financial trust and in many well-paying industries, it is a key requirement for obtaining the job. By teaching people how to effectively budget, save their money, and use credit appropriately, we open the door for financial responsibility. A sense of empowerment is a key component in self-reliance. Next, a “top-up” program will help OW to look at the income and expenses of its recipients and provide a stipend to cover the shortage. For instance, if a family of 4 has an income of $2000/month in Toronto and their living expenses is $2200/month, the government can provide $500/month which will allow them to cover their expense and have a small emergency fund. By doing this, OW will help to relieve the financial stress associated with the shortage and the lack of “in case of emergency” fund. Lastly, a skill-match program should be established to help match recipients based on their skills and interest to better paying opportunities across Canada. It should not be mandatory for a person to take on a particular role but instead allow this feature to serve as a source of information. Its goal is to pull back the curtain and open the door to career possibilities and livelihoods across Canada.

Ontario Works recipients are often seen as a bane in the eyes of many. They are seen as lazy and a drain to the system. However, looking closely at the current system it is clear that while recipients truly want to elevate themselves, the program does not provide room for upward mobility and self-reliance. Like the adage goes “give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”. It is my belief that self-reliance is a partnership. For a partnership to be successful, both parties must feel important and valuable.

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