Any day now, Ontario Social Services Minister Lisa MacLeod will release her promised reform plan for social assistance. Given the new Ford government has already rolled back recent social assistance enhancements and ended the basic income pilot, it seems likely that further cuts will be announced.
This is further evidenced by minister MacLeod's request for an auditor general investigation into "hundreds of millions of dollars" in social assistance fraud. Previous Conservative governments have used unsubstantiated claims of rampant welfare fraud to justify further cuts.
Two decades ago, Premier Mike Harris deliberately undermined public trust in the welfare system, vilifying those in need in order to justify deep cuts and an oppressive program redesign. Ignoring the systemic causes of poverty, he and his ministers preached a worldview that saw vulnerable Ontarians as responsible for their own impoverishment. The Harris government often implied that the poor were irresponsible and untrustworthy with public funds, such as when Harris cut a $37 monthly nutrition allowance for pregnant women on social assistance so "the dollars don't go to beer."
Not satisfied with simply nurturing existing stigmas of poverty, Harris would do his utmost to add the stigma of criminality, painting the poor as greedy and dishonest. Each year, the Harris government released an annual Welfare Fraud Control Report showing that, for example, out of 311,000 welfare cases between 1998 and 1999, 17,000 cases saw benefits reduced or terminated because of investigations that "catch welfare cheats and deter others from thinking about cheating."
The Harris government often implied that the poor were irresponsible and untrustworthy with public funds.
This created the impression that fraud was detected in 5.5 per cent of welfare cases, when it was only overpayments that were detected. Overpayments may be due to fraud, but are far more often caused by confusion on the part of the recipient or caseworker error. The same report admits that there were only 747 convictions for social assistance fraud during this period — a mere 0.2 per cent of all cases. To inflate the statistics, the government positioned any discovery of an overpayment as a case of fraud.
When one first hears about social assistance overpayments, it is not unusual to surmise that nefarious actions are the cause. What is not widely understood, however, is that our social assistance system, by its very design, routinely pays out incorrect amounts on an astonishing scale. From my own experience as a senior advisor to former Ontario Minister of Community and Social Services Helena Jaczek, I know that there are hundreds of millions of dollars in catalogued overpayments affecting about one in five of all active cases.
This is the result of an intrusive social assistance system governed by voluminous policy directives laying out hundreds of complicated rules. Even judges in fraud cases have written about the impenetrability of the often "Kafkaesque" regulations. Recipients must ensure their caseworker always has correct and detailed information on their shelter costs, utilities, living arrangements, assets, income, hospitalization and much more, even though none of us could begin to define these terms without sifting through pages of rules. In such a system, errors on the part of both recipients and caseworkers are "not only common but unavoidable."
By offering such a miserly and suffocating program, we are putting recipients in an impossible position.
Because of this complexity, an impoverished family often does not know it is receiving an overpayment, and that money is immediately spent on the necessities of life. Recovering those funds means holding back a portion of future income support, which could have dire consequences, such as an inability to pay a creditor or even eviction. Research on the small number who do commit social assistance fraud suggests that the main cause is survival. By offering such a miserly and suffocating program, we are putting recipients in an impossible position.
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Compare this to income tax fraud, which sees only a few dozen convictions a year across all tax filers in Canada. Those who don't pay their fair share of tax can hire a team of lawyers to defend them and are regularly forgiven for not understanding the complexities of the income-reporting requirements.
Sadly, by playing to the public's worst instincts, Mike Harris managed to change the very way we think about social assistance for a generation. Doug Ford's government "for the people" now has the chance to take a different approach, simplify social assistance and provide greater dignity to over a million vulnerable Ontarians.
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