The cost of living is rising. So why aren’t social-assistance rates?

Inflation is the highest it’s been in 18 years. But ODSP rates haven’t gone up in three
By Justin Chandler - Published on Oct 29, 2021
Protestors participate in a “Rally for ODSP” at Queens Park on September 28. (Anthony Frisina/Twitter)

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Andrea Hatala calls it Hell Week: the last few days of the month, before she receives her next payment from the Ontario Disability Support Program. “You have to figure out how to scrape by with no money,” says Hatala, who lives in Toronto. “A lot of times, you don't have a lot of food.”

For basic needs and shelter, ODSP provides single recipients with up to $1,169 a month — an amount that hasn’t kept up with inflation or increased at all since 2018. That has advocates such as Hatala, who volunteers with the ODSP Action Coalition, demanding reform: “The rates are too low, and if you're not even giving people a meagre increase, that's just not going to work.”

TVO.org Explainer: What is inflation?
Year-over-year, Canada’s Consumer Price Index, a measure of inflation, rose 4.4 per cent — the highest rate since 2003 — in September, meaning that goods and services cost, on average, 4.4 per cent more than they did in September 2020. Shelter is up 4.8 per cent, and food is up 3.9 per cent.

But ODSP benefits haven’t increased since the Doug Ford government halved a planned 3 per cent bump three years ago, saying the previous government had committed to spending money the province didn’t have.  Lisa MacLeod, then the minister of children, community and social services called the 1.5 per cent increase “compassionate.”

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A 2019 auditor-general’s report states that more than half a million people received money from the program in the 2018/19 fiscal year. The maximum monthly payment for a single person was $672 for basic needs and $497 for shelter, for a total of $1,169. (Some recipients can be eligible for special allowances for such things as dietary needs.)

In 2004, the most a single person could receive from ODSP was $930 per month, or the equivalent of about $1,266 today. That means ODSP payments now are worth less than they were 17 years ago.

A spokesperson for Merrilee Fullerton, the minister of children, community and social services, told TVO.org that in addition to the 1.5 per cent increase in 2018, the government “invested over $1 billion through the Social Services Relief Fund to ensure that our most vulnerable have support during the pandemic.” (This money went to various groups, including shelter and food-bank users.) The statement also indicates that Ontario “look[s] forward” to the federal government creating a promised Canadian Disability Benefit to top up supports.  

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Agenda segment, October 29, 2021: Making ends meet amid inflation 

Research suggests that the pandemic has made things tougher for people on social assistance. A McMaster University survey of 833 Ontarians between August and December 2020 showed that people on social assistance — ODSP and Ontario Works — struggled to make ends meet at a higher rate than those receiving the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit of $2,000 monthly and people not receiving any government support.

For respondents who received ODSP/OW, 56.1 per cent said they were falling behind on their debts. Of CERB recipients, 15.8 per cent reported the same, as did 7.3 per cent of people not receiving government support. Of ODSP/OW recipients, 51.4 per cent said there were days when they had no food, compared to 11.1 per cent of people on CERB and 5.3 per cent of those who did not receive support.

Bar chart comparing debt and type of government support
People receiving ODSP/OW payments were more likely to report falling behind on debts. (COVID Economic and Social Effects Study/McMaster University/mcmaster.ca)
Bar chart comparing food security and type of government support
More than half of ODSP recipients surveyed reported days during the pandemic where they had no food. (COVID Economic and Social Effects Study/McMaster University/mcmaster.ca)

Wayne Lewchuk, who worked as a co-investigator on the study and is a professor emeritus at McMaster’s School of Labour Studies and Department of Economics, says the findings came as no surprise: “Problems that existed pre-COVID have simply become crises.”

The fact that people who received CERB reported better circumstances has not been lost on those advocating for higher ODSP rates. “That the federal government picked the amount of $2,000 a month for CERB leads me to believe that they recognize people on ODSP are not given enough money to survive,” says Jon Braithwaite, CEO of the Hope Centre in Welland, which offers a food bank and programming to help people find housing.

Braithwaite notes that, when the pandemic started, many CERB recipients stopped coming to the food bank, presumably because they could afford to shop in grocery stores. But, according to the McMaster survey, one-quarter of ODSP/OW recipients made more use of food charities during the pandemic.

Hamiltonian Anthony Frisina, director of media relations for the Ontario Disability Coalition and creator of the local TV program Above and Beyond, calls it “mind-boggling” that anyone could think it was possible to live a healthy life on ODSP. Even $2,000 per month is too little for people with disabilities, he says, noting that some may need to take expensive medication or hire personal-support workers.

A woman in a baseball cap and purple sweater plays guitar outdoors
Andrea Hatala plays guitar at an anti-poverty rally in Toronto on September 28. (OCAP Toronto/Twitter)

Frisina, who uses a wheelchair, wants the conversation to move beyond making ends meet and toward helping people live healthy lives: “Change is necessary so that the disability community has an equal and fair opportunity to live the life that we want to live, not something that is dictated by a handout.”

In September, Hatala helped organize a rally at Queen’s Park at which the ODSP Action Coalition and other anti-poverty groups called on the government to raise rates. The coalition has also released a list of demands for decision-makers —  including increasing rates to reflect the real cost of living and adjusting them for inflation. (Fullerton’s spokesperson did not address repeated questions as to whether the government would consider taking any of these steps.) 

“In poverty, you're sort of obsessed with the fact that you have no money and obsessed with thinking of ways to scrape by,” Hatala says. “If we had an increase in the rates, it would eliminate Hell Week.”

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