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The long view: Frances Lankin co-chairs a massive review of Ontario's social support structure

Frances Lankin - Tanja-Tiziana

“Public policy,” says Frances Lankin, “is not an exercise in sheer logic.”

So call it an exercise in endurance, or an experiment in stamina. Lankin brings both qualities to her new role as co-commissioner of Ontario’s Social Assistance Review Committee, a massive policy meditation spelled out in the province’s 2008 Poverty Reduction Strategy. Lankin — erstwhile provincial NDP cabinet minister and the former head of United Way Toronto who oversaw publication of the organization’s seminal Poverty by Postal Code — is joined by Dr. Munir Sheik, an economist and the former head of Statistics Canada.

The two of them will be mining programs like Ontario Works (OW) and Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP). They’ll examine the policy interface between different levels of government. They’ll cut through the reams of red tape embodied in the approximately 800 rules bureaucrats and applicants have to navigate to access or disseminate benefits. Meetings have been ramping up in the past couple months. Come June 2012, the commission will deliver a set of recommendations, possibly to a government of a different political stripe than the one that commissioned their work.

“We have meetings with both opposition parties to get their point of view,” she says. “And we’re being really practical about building a set of recommendations that can really hopefully see some traction on areas across the political spectrum.”

Whether the Liberals triumph in October or the Conservatives surf the frothy foam of Ford populism to the Premier’s Office — or even if Lankin’s former party returns to government — the odds of an overhauled social security system are likely. And that has big implications for Toronto.

Because of its sheer size relative to other municipal entities in the province, Toronto necessarily represents a significant piece of the province’s social assistance scenario — about one-third, Lankin estimates. In 2010, the total cost of OW for Toronto, which included allowances, administration and employment assistance, was $1,026 million, of which the city kicked in $233 million. For ODSP, the total cost, including allowances and benefits, was $756 million, of which the city footed $76 million.

As of the turn of this year, the province fully uploaded the service, removing the city’s obligation and, according to government numbers, saving Ontario municipalities $1.5 billion by 2018.

Caseloads, meanwhile, vary month to month for both programs. In February 2011, there were 84,560 OW case files and 62,020 for ODSP. Each caseload can represent a number of beneficiaries, however, so the true reach of OW that month was 152,137 Torontonians, while ODSP represented 84,986. Tens of thousands of these people were children.

“This system is designed to help people get back to work or to provide adequate support for them if they can’t work,” Lankin says. “There’s a question about whether it’s doing either of those things very well right now.”

Complicating matters is that problems within the system are compounded by trends and changes in broader society. The post-recession emergence of precarious employment — part-time or temporary jobs — creates a revolving door that swings people in and out of the system, essentially bogging them and their families in a poverty swamp.

“We need to look at that and understand all of the elements that are at play there,” she says. “There are some clients who will find their way back into employment. There are other clients who are going to need very intensive supports and interventions and perhaps basic training — literacy and numeracy training — at a more intense level. That can, up front, appear to be a very costly model. But there’s a pay-off if that person is able to then get employment that keeps them employed and on a different life path than the revolving door.”

That kind of cost-benefit paradox seems to be on the rise when addressing social ailments. In January, the Calgary Homeless Foundation, fronted by some major players in big business, celebrated 10 years of a strategy that gives, outright, homes to the homeless. The foundation figured the societal cost of each chronically homeless individual at $100,000. It estimates the city’s chronically homeless population is between 800 and 1,600. The organization’s anniversary was feted by National Post columnist Kevin Libin in the March 2011 edition of The Financial Post. The situation may have repulsive optics if you’re a taxpaying homeowner, Libin wrote, but the numbers still make fine sense.

Lankin and the commission are exploring similar ideas to address the very specific challenges experienced by members of the disabled community. Many people with disabilities are ready and able to work, but they face enormous barriers in the workplace, from infrastructural accessibility to hesitant employers. Lankin says society writes off an enormous portion of these people, whether from part-time employment or full-time, and the result is personal struggle and societal cost. Addressing issues of workplace accommodation is a huge and long-fought battle. If the commission were able to somehow address it, it would still be left with a group of people who are too disabled to work.

“If we were to do that, I think we’d also have to ask ourselves the question about those people who truly, as the result of disabilities, are unable to work at all,” Lankin says. “Is it appropriate for us to be providing support for them through what is a social assistance or welfare system? Or should there be a separate disability benefit where we look to a coordinated effort between the federal and provincial governments around how people with very severe disabilities are supported to live a life with dignity?”

In other words, is the temporary support or top-up mandate of the province’s social security system appropriate? Or is full-income support more necessary, for individuals and society?

A discussion paper exploring these and a labyrinth of other issues is due out in May. Feedback will be gathered from that paper, and a costing exercise will begin. In November, an options paper will be released based on that information, and the final recommendations are due out in the summer of 2012.

Paul Carlucci is a GTA based writer.
This article first appeared on Yonge Street June 1.