Short-term dollar savings must not come at the expense of long-term social costs. In Hamilton and elsewhere, we can’t afford to lose Discretionary Benefits.
By Greg Tedesco
Published March 14, 2013
This past January, I began to work with a group of fellow social work students at McMaster University on a project as a part of a social justice/social movements course.
Our advocacy-based project gave us the opportunity to connect with two key mentors in the community: Tom Cooper from the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction and Laura Cattari from Advocacy Hamilton.
In looking at what direction to take our project, we decided to focus on discretionary benefits offered through Ontario Works, changes to these benefits and the impact of these changes on many Hamiltonians.
In 2012, as part of the austerity budget, the provincial government cut and capped funding for two critical social assistance programs: Community Start Up and Maintenance Benefits (CSUMB) and Discretionary Health Benefits. Tom Cooper wrote an article for Raise the Hammer outlining concerns regarding the impact of these decisions.
Following an outcry from communities and anti-poverty organizations across Ontario at the end of 2012, the provincial government allocated $42 million in transitional funding to assist municipalities offset the impact of the CSUMB cuts.
Unfortunately, provincial assistance was not forthcoming for Discretionary Benefits. This left communities and social assistance recipients questioning whether or not municipalities, including Hamilton, could continue to provide any level of benefits without the previous level of financial support from the province.
While the City of Hamilton has taken a leadership role in protecting Discretionary Benefits since the cuts were announced, a major deadline is fast approaching at the mid-way point of 2013 that will impact their ability to continue to do so.
Hamilton City Council approved funding for Discretionary Benefits for the first six months of 2013, however financial concerns may limit the city's ability to offer these critical benefits at the same levels past this point.
This will mean that many will be without access to basic health and non-health related supports, such as: emergency dental care for adults, basic vision care for adults, prosthetic appliances, funerals and burials, utility arrears payments, vocational training and re-training, travel and transportation for non-health related purposes, moving expenses and other authorized special service items.
At the centre of this issue are the individuals that are directly impacted by these cuts. In 2012, approximately 90,000 Ontario Works and Ontario Disability Support Program claims were paid. Without long-term, sustainable funding, individuals will potentially lose benefits and supports, which our working group believes would have devastating long-term, negative impacts on those who depend on these benefits.
It is difficult to quantify the impact of a reduction in these benefits; however the Community Services Department of the City of Hamilton released a report [PDF] in 2012 with a cost analysis of the current benefits and potential impacts of reduced benefit levels.
This report indicated that a "...reduced level of benefits will result in significant health consequences or other hardships to the Hamilton residents currently eligible for these services".
The overarching purpose of our work was initially to advocate for the reinstatement of provincial funding of discretionary benefits for Ontario Works recipients.
Through advocacy and awareness building, we hope to continue to promote the need for more sustainable, long-term funding for health benefits and shift perspectives of these benefits from being 'discretionary', to necessary social investments.
While the focus remains on advocating for the provincial government to re-commit to funding these critical benefits, the City of Hamilton must remain leaders in Ontario and continue to implement strategies to maintain service levels.
After reflecting on positive outcomes that had come as a result of community organizing and advocacy around the issue of CSUMB, Tom Cooper wrote: "It will be critical in the months to come to continue to impress upon the provincial government and those vying to become Premier that cutting critical social programs will result in huge costs to individuals and society".
This sentiment remains true today, as city staff continue to determine how to effectively work within the current funding limitations to maintain Discretionary Benefits.
A new premier in Ontario provides a level of renewed hope that issues around social justice may be addressed in a more comprehensive way.
With this hope must come continued engagement and action from citizens and advocates, as well as our elected officials, to impress upon Premier Wynne and her Cabinet the importance of this issue and the need to renew the commitment to social programs that promote long-term health, equity and social inclusion.
Short-term dollar savings must not come at the expense of long-term social costs. In Hamilton and elsewhere, we can't afford to lose Discretionary Benefits.
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