Leading Edge / Summer 2005
Emotional Welfare

Ontario’s social assistance program too complicated, impersonal, study suggests


Ontario’s income assistance program is deliberately designed to deny eligibility to welfare, not to provide access, say University of Toronto researchers.

“If you make the system complicated enough, you just drive people away,” says Ernie Lightman, a professor in U of T’s Faculty of Social Work and co-author of a paper published in Social Policy & Administration.
 “Dehumanizing” changes came about during the Harris years, with a workfare program emphasizing compulsion to work rather than voluntarism, and sanctions rather than incentives, according to authors Lightman, Dean Herd, a post-doctoral fellow, and Andrew Mitchell, a research associate, at the Faculty of Social Work.

The researchers outlined the administrative practices that became barriers to establishing welfare eligibility, including a two-step application process that demanded a large amount of documentation. A standardized first interview that took place by phone further depersonalized the process, removed the opportunity for judgments based on individual circumstances and proved disadvantageous for those who do not speak English well, says Lightman.

Documenting this shift in approach is an important first step in encouraging the current government, which has begun to revise the system, says Lightman. “The state has the right to ensure that people seeking benefits are entitled to get them, but there are ways to ensure eligibility while respecting people’s humanity.”


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