'These folks are being left to live below the poverty line': Ford's increase to ODSP not nearly not enough, experts say

·Editor, Yahoo News Canada
·7 min read
TORONTO, ON - MAY 14 - Lillian (not her real name), poses at Regent Park Community Health Clinic, May 14, 2015. Lillian relies on Ontario Disability Support Program, ODSP, due to mental health problems. She has recently completed a long and complicated medical review to confirm her eligibility for the program with the help of Dr. Fatima Uddin. (Andrew Francis Wallace/Toronto Star via Getty Images) (Andrew Francis Wallace via Getty Images)

Ontario's Progressive Conservative government has finally announced that the recipients of Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) will receive their five per cent increase in September this year.

In early May, while fighting a tough election after the pandemic, Ontario Premier Doug Ford promised to increase the ODSP payments by five per cent, but didn't announce when his party would be doing so.

Even after stating that his party would allocate $425 million for ODSP in this year's budget, it was surprising then to see that the change was not mentioned anywhere in their whopping $198.6 billion budget for the 2022 fiscal year. Only later, after facing fire for not keeping his election promise, did Premier Ford say he will be passing the legislation as "quickly" as possible.

The last time ODSP payments were increased was in 2018, when the Doug Ford government cut a promised 3 per cent increase in welfare to 1.5 per cent. Social Services Minister Lia Macleod called the 1.5 per cent increase "compassionate"—after which, the ODSP rates were frozen for four years.

Today, a single person on ODSP receives a maximum of $1,169 a month—$497 for shelter and $672 for basic needs. This amounts to only $14,028 annually, which is 30 per cent below the poverty line in Toronto of roughly $20,000.

Advocates, activists, and people with ODSP are still anxious after the announced 5 per cent increase—a mere $58.45 a month—since they believe that this level of support is far too low to survive today. Given the unprecedented rise in inflation, nutrition costs, and lack of affordable and accessible housing, many people believe that the government needs to go beyond the 5 per cent increase.

'The best social program is a job'

Secretary Co-chair of the ODSP ActionCoalition Trevor Manson has been involved with the Coalition since 2016.

"When I became disabled and applied for ODSP in 2015, I knew absolutely nothing about it. Zero." Manson says in a phone interview. "When I started learning about the rules, I was like 'who the hell is coming up with this shit?'" he says.

"You know, I still remember when the Conservatives came in, then Minister Lisa Macleod said, 'the best social program is a job'. But you know, the D in ODSP stands for Disability," Manson says.

People are not on it because they want to be, they are on it because they have no other choice. No child grows up dreaming of being on ODSP and essentially living below the poverty line.Trevor Manson, Secretary Co-chair of the ODSP ActionCoalition

Manson talks about his own experience with ODSP back in 2015. For starters, when Manson applied for ODSP, he was denied because applicants were not allowed to have more than $5000 in assets to be eligible.

"I was told I had too much money...they were telling me that I essentially had to get rid of all my money so I could qualify for ODSP. How does that make any sense at all?"

The liberals eventually changed the asset limit to $40,000 before they were voted out, but it was too late for Manson who had to cash out his savings before he could be eligible to apply again.

"I used to make $70,000 a year. I took a 75% pay cut. How could anyone be okay with this?" he added.

The impact of inflation and COVID-19 on ODSP

Inflation is nearing a 40-year high and banks are increasing interest rates again to combat it. According to the Bank of Canada, both domestic and international forces are driving inflation to an all-time high. Domestically, the excess demand has pushed it higher; and internationally, shortages in energy and consumer products, followed by the war in Ukraine, has caused inflation to soar further.

"If you tie the 5 per cent increase to the rate of inflation in the last four years, it doesn't even replace half of what's been eroded," said Manson while speaking about the rental market.

This, in turn, has led to an increase in housing costs and basic nutritional items. According to The Globe and Mail, cost of shelter rose 7.4 per cent in April. Similarly, according to a June 2022 report by rentals.ca, the average cost of a one-bedroom apartment in Toronto is $2,133 and a two-bedroom is $3,002.

Simply put: there is nothing to rent in the city with a meagre $497.

According to Manson, there is a misconception that people on ODSP or Ontario Works (OW) live in community housing with subsidized rents. "70 per cent of ODSP clients live in private market rentals on private market rates," he says.

ODSP ActionCoalition did an online survey in 2021 to find out what percentage of income people spend on rent. The survey found that most people spend 66 per cent of their ODSP income on rent, and about 5 per cent spend their entire ODSP income on rent.

"And you know what else? If you're homeless, the city does not give you the $497 shelter allowance either—so the cycle keeps repeating itself."

Trevor pays $1,000 for the apartment he's been living in for the last eleven years only because of rent control.

Apart from soaring rent, food prices are through the roof—staples ranging from meat to cooking oil rose 30 per cent. Prices for everything— white bread, canned tuna, vegetable oil, coffee, and milk—have gone up dramatically. According to a report by Food Banks Canada report in June, nearly one in four Canadians are eating less than they believe they should.

"You're forgetting that people with disability often need to spend extra on supplements and some medication—for example, medical cannabis—that isn't covered by the Ontario drug benefit," Manson added.

How, then, is $1,169 a month enough?

David Lepofsky, chair of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance, believes that the government left out disabled people in their COVID-19 response with their "one-size-fits-all" approach.

"COVID-19 disproportionately affected people with disabilities. We disproportionately died from it, we disproportionately got sick from it, and we're subjected from its impact," Lepofsky said.

"We face disproportionately high unemployment rates. We face systemic barriers in the education system and accessible housing. And for all this, the government has no plan to fix it," he added.

“Modern day eugenics”: More people with ODSP opt for MAiD due to lack of support from the system

After news broke that a woman with chemical sensitivity chose medically-assisted death after several failed attempts to get better housing, another CTV article highlighted the plight of a woman with long COVID who began the process of medically assisted death because she didn’t qualify for ODSP.

Medical Assistance in Dying (MAiD) became legal in 2016. Although initially only those whose natural death was reasonably foreseeable could qualify for MAiD, the scenario changed after a Supreme Court challenge followed by a legislation amendment in 2021. Now, any Canadian enduring an “intolerable” illness—even if they’re not near their natural death—can qualify for assisted death.

This highly controversial law is now setting a dangerous precedent as more and more people with disabilities are opting for MAiD because of financial poverty, lack of affordable housing, and other concerns that are being overlooked by the government.

“Since Bill C-7 passed, we have seen a disturbing increase in cases of people applying for MAiD because they can no longer tolerate living in abject poverty,” said Manson.

“It’s a form of modern day eugenics—that the government would rather provide you with a dignified death than provide you with resources to let you live comfortably.”

David Lepofsky has a similar opinion.

“It’s now gotten to the point where people are asking for it as a way out of poverty. There is no effective public supervision—it’s doctor accelerated suicide,” he said.

We need to do more to make it easier to live with disability, not make it easier to die because of it.David Lepofsky, Chair of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance