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Social Assistance Reforms Hurt the Most Vulnerable

YWCA Toronto
YWCA Toronto
October 02, 2019

By Wren Pragg

Women are the face of poverty.

More than 2.4 million women and girls (13.8%) are living on a low income in Canada as of 2016.[i] Women who experience financial difficulties are more likely to be single parents and racialized. This reality means that women are also more likely to participate in publically funded social assistance programs.  

In Ontario, social assistance is comprised of Ontario Works (OW), a program that provides low-income workers with financial and employment assistance, and the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP), which offers financial and employment assistance to those with recognized disabilities.

Currently, a single person on OW receives less than $750 a month; a single parent on OW with two children receives less than $1,300. ODSP rates are not much better. Given the cost of public transit, housing and food in Toronto, people on social assistance live well below the poverty line in our city – disproportionately impacting racialized women and their children.

Instead of raising social assistance rates to keep up with the rate of inflation and the cost of living, the provincial government has introduced sweeping social assistance cuts. According to government’s estimates, funding for financial assistance under OW will be $296.3 million lower in 2019-2020 than in the previous year. [ii]  People with disabilities will see ODSP financial assistance cut by $222.1 million.[iii]

It will also become more difficult to qualify for ODSP.[iv] Those who currently rely on ODSP will continue to be eligible for the program in spite of changes to the definition of disability, but all new applicants will be subject to a restricted set of criteria. As some organizations have suggested, this means that those who would have been eligible to receive ODSP will now have to apply for OW. As OW recipients, it also means that they will be expected to find work even if they are too unwell to do so.

While the cuts are sweeping, some of the impacts of the recent changes to disability have been unclear in practice, and thus anxiety provoking for people.  

In July I met with residents and staff at YWCA Toronto’s Pape Avenue Apartments to talk about the experiences they have had dealing with OW and ODSP since the cuts were announced. Many of the concerns and difficulties with these programs were expressed by social assistance recipients. For example, some of the cuts are not clear to recipients until a standard claim is made and it comes back denied.

Residents listed the following challenges since the cuts were announced: orthotics funding reduced, glasses are covered every three years instead of two, “three times longer for medical equipment after hospital visits,” physiotherapy is cut, medical transportation is cut, PTSD and anxiety support programs are being reduced or cut, insulin coverage has been reduced, cuts on dentures and chiropractic care, and the Housing Stabilization Fund has been cut.

The undeniable feeling elicited by these changes is worry.

Worry and distress about what is going to happen, and how people will be able to survive in spite of losing what little help that existed. One resident expressed that she felt isolated and knows that her circumstances are impacting her children. She does not know what to do other than to tell her story. No one knows if there are other cuts coming. It is unclear what kind of support people with ‘invisible disabilities’ can expect.

The exacerbation of oppression through systemic neglect and cost-saving strategies is an attack on all those in poverty, and poor women and children in particular. With an upcoming federal election it becomes ever more important to choose political representation that helps to create a safer and more compassionate world for everyone.


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