The Ford government has directed municipalities to “destroy” more than 240,000 inserts to October welfare cheques outlining previously announced cuts to social assistance this fall.
The move has raised hopes among anti-poverty activists and municipal officials that the province may be reconsidering the changes, widely believed to be harmful to vulnerable children and people on social assistance with part-time jobs.
A spokeswoman for Todd Smith, minister of children, community and social services, refused to comment on the ministry directive or say why it was issued.
“We are constantly reviewing government programs, with a focus on improved delivery and better outcomes for all,” Christine Wood said in an email.
The insert to be destroyed includes notification that the $67 million Transition Child Benefit, is being eliminated Nov. 1. It also includes information about changes to earnings exemptions — or the amount of money a person on welfare can earn from a part-time job before their benefits are reduced. That change is supposed to take effect Dec. 1.
Toronto received “a communication from (the ministry) advising that a recently delivered cheque insert had been cancelled and that offices should destroy the insert,” said Anna Fiorino, a manager with Toronto Employment and Social Services.
The Ontario Municipal Social Services Association (OMSSA), which represents the province’s 47 local social service managers, confirmed all of their members received the ministry directive earlier this month.
“It has certainly started a lot of rumours and speculation,” said Darryl Wolk, the association’s policy development and public affairs manager.
“I have heard nothing yet that would indicate (the province is) reconsidering this right now,” he said in an interview Monday. “But I’m hoping we hear a little bit more this week as far as what the next step is going to be in terms of their communication.”
Municipalities, which manage the provincial Ontario Works program on behalf of Queen’s Park, are mailing October cheques or direct deposit statements this week.
The Transition Child Benefit helps an average of 32,000 children a month whose families are either not receiving the Ontario Child Benefit and the Canada Child Benefit or are not getting the full amount. The monthly payment of up to $230 per child, covers the cost of food, clothing and other necessities.
An average of almost 16,000 families a month — including 4,000 in Toronto — would be impacted province-wide, including about 5,500 who are not eligible for the provincial and federal benefit because their refugee claims have not yet been processed, according to provincial data.
Parents with newborns who are awaiting benefits, those who have not had their tax benefits adjusted after a job loss and those who have had benefits suspended due to a tax audit would also lose the support.
Without the transitional benefit, many of these families will lose their housing and be forced to use the city’s already overtaxed emergency shelter system, according to a Toronto staff report going to city council Oct. 2-3.
Municipal social services staff in Hamilton, Ottawa, Waterloo, Windsor, Niagara, Halton and others have issued similar warnings.
City councillors in Toronto and Hamilton are so worried low-income families will become homeless without the benefit that they are poised to cover the cut from local reserve funds.
Toronto’s executive committee last week unanimously approved a staff report recommending council approve an additional $8.5 million over the next six months to introduce a “temporary family housing benefit” to help affected families avoid homelessness when the provincial cut bites this fall.
Hamilton’s emergency and community services committee last week recommended a similar strategy to help 806 families in that city where 1,805 children rely on the benefit. A staggering 87 per cent of Hamilton children impacted by the cut are under age 3, according to a staff report.
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Earlier this month, the Income Security Advocacy Centre (ISAC), notified the attorney general’s office that it is launching a constitutional challenge, claiming the cut is discriminatory, arbitrary and deprives children of their right to life and security.
Since the introduction of the Ontario Child Benefit over a decade ago, monthly Ontario Works benefits have not included cash to cover basic necessities for children. The Transition Child Benefit was introduced in 2008 to ensure families not receiving provincial and federal child benefits, would still have money to feed and clothe their kids.
“We don’t know what the removal of this (welfare) insert means, whether the province is reconsidering the Transition Child Benefit or the earnings exemption or both,” said ISAC lawyer Jackie Esmonde. “I’m hopeful that there is some positive news coming. I hope this means families can feed their children come Nov. 1.”
Tom Cooper of the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction, a local advocacy group, said he is also cautiously optimistic about the ministry directive.
“I’m hopeful they have heard the outcry from across the province that this cut will devastate some of the most vulnerable families in Ontario,” he said.
Several Hamilton residents told local councillors that they would have lost their housing without the benefit.
“The $230 dollars doesn’t sound like much but when it’s 20 per cent of your total monthly income, it is a life changing amount,” said Hamilton mother Jackie Caldwell. She used the benefit to help pay the cost of staying in Ronald McDonald House after delivering twins prematurely and suffering a heart attack.
“Without the transition child benefit I would have had to sacrifice my already limited income so I could make the right choices for my family’s health,” she said in her written deputation to councillors Sept. 19.
“We would have been evicted from our home during the most stressful time of our lives. I can say with the utmost confidence; my family wouldn’t have been able to recover from that.”
The destroyed October insert also included information on an increase from $200 to $300 a month to the earning exemption for people on social assistance, which is slated to kick in Dec. 1 for Transition Child recipients.
The increase also includes a more aggressive benefit clawback of 75 cents for every dollar a person earns above $300, up from the current 50 cents on the dollar. If implemented, as announced last fall, people on Ontario Works with part-time jobs would be kicked off welfare at lower incomes.