Karl Marx famously observed, in the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, that “The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.” This quotation came to mind when I reflected on the putrid and bizarre changes to social assistance in Ontario over the years that are carried over from government to government, coming back like that bad penny. As has been said, the bad penny always turns up, even now that the penny is no longer with us.
While the terms Ontario Works (OW) and Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) begin with Mike Harris, for convenience we will use them here for the municipally run program (OW) and the provincial one (ODSP). Often the nasty regulations apply only to OW recipients, as they are seen as less worthy than those on ODSP.
In 1988, the Social Assistance Review Committee, headed by Judge George Thomson, observed and condemned the complexity of the rules. It called for simplification. Since then, complexity has expanded exponentially. Much but not all the nightmares and bad pennies involve increasing complexity.
We begin with Bob Rae’s policy on car ownership. As originally enacted, a person on or applying for OW could own a car with a value of no more than $5,000. If he did, he had six months to get rid of it. After six months, if the car was then still worth more than that, he had to get rid of it and live off the difference before he could again be eligible. Hence, there are two steps to consider, an original evaluation and a follow-up six months later. This policy, along with a book of directives the size of a Manhattan phone book, simply confused many workers. In her book Hope and Despair Monia Mazigh recounts her experience in applying for OW in Ottawa. Sell the car first, she was told. Wrong, that is not what the regulation says. Subsequent governments have continued this regulation, changing only the value of the auto to $10,000. But if the person is on or gets on ODSP, he can own a car of any value—a Rolls Royce, a Cadillac, a Lamborghini.
Some of the bad pennies have indeed fallen out of circulation, but some are still with us. One of the most egregious is a Mike Harris monstrosity, addressing the situation where a person seeking assistance is living with one or both parents. The regulation sets down the task of determining whether such a person is independent or dependent. If independent he gets his own check. If dependent and the family on OW or ODSP, his entitlement is transferred to the family and added to their check. If the family is not on welfare and not entitled, no benefit. But, if his room has ever been rented out, then all that doesn’t count. In determining if a person is an independent adult, the welfare worker must establish if he has ever been self-supporting for a cumulative period of 12 months during his life. Put on our Sherlock Holmes hat, brave welfare worker! This bizarre regulation is still with us. But, again, it doesn’t apply to the worthy poor on ODSP.
There are other Mike Harris contributions to this Social Assistance Chamber of Horrors. He instituted a $2 charge for each prescription. This applies to both OW and ODSP recipients. Still on the books.
Harris also eliminated the automatic transfer to ODSP of people aged 60 and older. Subsequent governments have maintained the alteration.
One of the most vicious of Harris’ acts was the 21.6% cut in OW rates. The Liberals loved that one so much that they not only kept it but in terms of real dollars, adjusted for inflation, OW recipients are getting even less now than under Harris.
The Ontario Liberal governments looked Mike Harris in the eye and saw a wise statesman. They followed in his footsteps.