TORONTO — People receiving disability support from the Ontario government will be able to keep more of the money they earn as part of the province's overhaul of social assistance, but critics say it will be harder to qualify for help.
Social Services Minister Lisa MacLeod laid out a broad vision for social assistance under the Progressive Conservatives on Thursday, promising to cut red tape and encourage people to get back in the job market with a series of changes scheduled to take place over the next 18 months.
"The sad truth is that social assistance in Ontario is simply not working for the people it is intended to support. It traps people in a cycle of dependency and far too often it robs them of the dignity and independence of a job. We can do better," MacLeod said.
"We want to make sure that we do this gradually so we do not disrupt people in need, we're talking about a million people."
It robs them of the dignity and independence of a job.Lisa MacLeod on the current status of social assistance
The government's changes include aligning the province's definition of disability with that of the federal government, a move MacLeod said aimed to provide greater clarity.
Ottawa does not have a single definition for what constitutes a disability but opposition legislators said the threshold to qualify for disability benefits under the Canada Pension Plan is higher than it is for the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP).
MacLeod said those currently receiving disability support from the province will be grandfathered in to the new system, but she refused to say whether fewer would be able to qualify in the future.
The changes announced Thursday will, however, allow people on disability support who are able to work to keep more of their earnings.
The province said people on ODSP will be able to earn $6,000 a year without having their support reduced, rather than the current $2,400. They will see 75 per cent of any earnings above that limit taken off their benefits.
'They've failed entirely'
Mark Cannon, an ODSP recipient in Waterford, Ont., said it was a "slap in the face" that the minister talked about dignity.
"There's no dignity when you're on disability," he told HuffPost Canada. "They've failed entirely to do anything productive."
Cannon said it doesn't make sense for the government's biggest reform to be increasing the income threshold, since most people who collect disability do so because they cannot work.
There's no dignity when you're on disability.Mark Cannon
"It's a pittance really, in the grand scheme of things."
Those receiving support through the Ontario Works program will also see their threshold changed.
They will be able to take home $300 a month before seeing a drop in assistance, compared with the current $200. They would lose 75 per cent of any further earnings. The Liberals had pledged to raise the monthly threshold to $400, with 50 per cent of additional earnings clawed back.
When asked how much the government's revamped social assistance system will cost, MacLeod declined to answer, saying, "I reject the question."
Critics accused the government of passing off social assistance cuts as compassionate reforms.
"For people in Ontario living with a disability or serious illness, this change is going to make them more destitute, and more desperate," NDP social services critic Lisa Gretzky said in a statement. "This is a callous way to deliver a cut on the backs of the most vulnerable people in Ontario. It's taking Ontario's social services from bad to worse."
Liberal legislator Marie-France Lalonde said she had "strong concerns" about the government's plan to alter the definition of disability.
This change is going to make them more destitute, and more desperate.Lisa Gretzky
"Our interpretation is the CPP definition on disability and the threshold is way higher to have access," she said.
Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner said redefining disability will add more barriers when so many people are already excluded from the support they need.
"I think they're looking at trying to create more restrictions for people to be on ODSP because it's a more generous monthly benefit," he said of the government.
Thursday's announcement got a mixed response from Community Living Ontario, a nonprofit that works with people with intellectual disabilities.
More from HuffPost Canada:
Switching to an annual income threshold and raising the limit is helpful for those on disability who are able to work, said Chris Beesley, the organization's CEO.
"(But) for a lot of people who have had trouble getting work that would allow them to earn more than $6,000 or have trouble being able to work, this really does nothing," he said.
Beesley said he would have liked to see an increase in disability benefits that keeps up with the rate of inflation as well as measures such as increasing the limit on assets owned by people receiving ODSP.
The government announced this summer it would carry out a massive redesign of its social assistance system, saying the existing one was expensive and inefficient.
Watch 'No Strings Attached,' HuffPost Canada's series on the basic income pilot:
Before this change, the province moved to cancel a basic income pilot project that provided payments to 4,000 low-income earners in cities such as Hamilton, Brantford, Thunder Bay and Lindsay. Ontario's project was set to be one of the most robust basic income experiments ever done, and would have provided valuable data on the effects of a reimagined social assistance program. Academics and economists all over the world were looking forward to its results.
MacLeod has said the program was unrealistic because it would cost $17 billion a year to roll out permanently, although that price could be reduced significantly if the program creates savings in other areas. Without data from the cancelled pilot, however, it is impossible to know exactly how much a basic income would save.
The Tories also previously said they were cutting a planned three per cent increase in social assistance to 1.5 per cent.
With files from Emma Paling