The Resilient Neighbourhood Economies (RNE) project focused on building sustainable economic opportunities for low-income people and ran from 2012 to 2015. The project was a partnership between Metcalf’s Inclusive Local Economies Program and two community-based organizations. During RNE’s three years, both community organizations raised concerns about roadblocks that individuals on social assistance face that prevent them from exploring self-employment or entrepreneurial opportunities. We asked Metcalf Innovation Fellow John Stapleton to explore this issue. The result is this series of guest posts titled Solitary Confinement. In these posts John will share first-hand accounts, provide analysis of structural barriers, and shine a light on examples or solutions that can address disincentives. Click on the links below to read the three posts.
“OW provides an income floor below which Ontarians are not permitted to fall. The unintended consequence of this policy is that the floor often acts as a ceiling above which a recipient cannot climb.”
In the first blog in this series, I explored how poverty, under Ontario Works, is understood to be a deficit that the individual has to overcome on their own (emphasis is mine). The individual is the focus and, by design, Ontario Works is silent on the role of our wider economic and political systems in the creation of poverty and low incomes. In essence, the problem of poverty resides with the recipient and the wider public is framed as the taxpayers to whom the recipient is responsible.
This underlying philosophy of Ontario Works (OW) is found in the legislation. Although quoted in the first blog, it is worth repeating:
- The purpose of this Act is to establish a program that,
(a) recognizes individual responsibility and promotes self-reliance through employment;
(b) provides temporary financial assistance to those most in need while they satisfy obligations to become and stay employed;
(c) effectively serves people needing assistance; and
(d) is accountable to the taxpayers of Ontario.
OW provides an income floor below which Ontarians are not permitted to fall. The unintended consequence of this policy is that the floor often acts as a ceiling above which a recipient cannot climb.
In the second blog, with the able assistance of Leila Sarangi from Women’s Habitat of Etobicoke, I demonstrated that the OW system parallels its philosophy of individual responsibility for escaping poverty in its system of one-caseworker – one-recipient.
I also demonstrated that a wide berth is provided by OW to:
- bring the full force of punitive income support rules to bear on the economic life of the recipient;
- exercise discretion to provide a generous array of employment supports; or
- do both at the same time.
But becoming successfully self-employed or a successful entrepreneur demands something other than a rigid one-caseworker – one-recipient approach to case management. Pathways to self-employment require the support and guidance of colleagues and peers. There are very few “one man bands” in the world of entrepreneurs.
Entrepreneurs gather a critical mass of people and skills together to execute a business idea. And that’s why the one-to-many model of one worker to a group of social assistance recipients worked so well in the experiment conducted by Toronto Employment and Social Services (TESS) at the Pan Am games. The one-to-many model permits one worker to handle the entrepreneurial efforts of a number of recipients to enable them to work collaboratively to pool their skills and social capital.
It focused and firewalled a set of generous OW employment supports equally to a group of recipients without the punitive income support rules that turn the floor into a ceiling. Everyone worked under the same suite of supportive rules with the knowledge that:
- the same rules applied to all; and that
- entrepreneurship was being supported.
So why has TESS not gone beyond the pilot to implement this promising model?
Headwinds facing the one-to-many model
The answer is that there are serious headwinds which, in my view, have thwarted the widespread adoption of this innovative approach.
Headwind #1: Ontario Works Legislation does not support the one-to-many model
Under Ontario Works legislation, the choice can be made to adopt a one-to-many model and maximize supports and minimize punitive rules. But there is no good way to do this.
The choice to emphasize and closely administer punitive income and “resources deemed available” rules is always lurking. That is, the authority to minimize punitive rules is not structurally embedded in the legislation so social assistance administrators do not pursue innovation and often default to caution, which leads to inaction.
There is no Commissioner who can provide the discretion to go one way or the other. On the face of it, Ontario Works tells you to go all ways at once — provide needed support while enforcing punitive measures. It is left up to staff and gives caseworkers inordinate power to choose which direction they take with recipients.
Significantly, the legal role of the Director in the legislation does give her the power and authority to instruct administrators as to how to conduct business. But even if she wished to favour a progressive approach, the specificity of the income support rules would disallow such an approach. In other words, the Director is not like a Commissioner who would have discretion in these matters.
Headwind #2: Audit standards and the audit bias
The second headwind is audit standards. Audit standards are informed by the terms of the OW legislation itself. A government auditor determines if government administration is meeting the terms of legislation. No one disputes that this is what auditors do.
The problem is that audit standards, in the case of Ontario Works, create a bias in the system. On the one hand there is no requirement in law that a recipient of Ontario Works is made employable or is provided decent work. On the other hand, there are stringent requirements that a recipient meet all of the punitive income support rules.
This creates what I call the “audit bias” where audit standards default to enforcement of requirements, to the detriment of standards that would increase employability.
This audit bias can be seen in the summary of the Auditor General’s last audit of Ontario Works in 2009: It remains our view that the Ministry still has inadequate assurance that only eligible individuals receive financial assistance and in the correct amount.
The Auditor General also had 13 summary findings — each of which concerned eligibility standards. There were no findings related to ensuring that each recipient was being offered all the employment assistance to which they were entitled.
It is hard to blame the Auditor General for focusing on requirements, as opposed to program objectives, as reporting on legal program requirements is one of the Auditor General’s key responsibilities. But the fact remains that a key message to the Ontario Works delivery system is that caseworkers should be focusing their efforts on enforcing requirements as opposed to delivering on employment objectives.
Headwind #3: Privacy concerns
The third and perhaps most important headwind is what I call “phony” privacy provisions. Phony privacy concerns occur when a recipient is not able to consent to the disclosure of their personal information, even when it is to their advantage to do so.
In all my attempts to understand the impediments to having a caseworker meet with a group of recipients, the explanation I receive is that such meetings are not permitted because of privacy concerns. The gist of the argument is that the privacy of the recipient is violated when one recipient attends a meeting with other recipients. The position of both the Ontario government and the City of Toronto is that group meetings potentially violate the privacy of recipients even where the group has agreed to the meeting and individual members agree that their privacy is not being violated.
In Toronto, several acts and codes result in the City cautioning against the implementation of tools that may pose a “risk” in protecting a client’s privacy.
- Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (MFIPPA) (Section 2)
- Bill 8, Public Sector and MPP Accountability and Transparency Act, 2014
- Personal Health Information Protection Act, 2004
- City of Toronto Act, 2006
- Toronto Municipal Code (esp. Chapter 217)
- The City’s Privacy Impact Assessment Policy
This elixir of legislation — municipal and provincial — overrules the informed consent of recipients who wish to plan their employment as a group.
Instead of invoking privacy regulations for purposes of protecting identity, individual rights, and personal space, it invokes them to isolate and confine recipients against their will. This is an almost unimaginable set of unintended consequences.
Recommendations and conclusion
The current provincial government has enjoyed four straight mandates, three of them majorities. This has given them many opportunities to change the Ontario Works legislation that they opposed while in opposition. The government has chosen to keep the legislation intact.
This is surprising given the mandate letter from Premier Kathleen Wynne to Minister Helena Jaczek, September 2014, which read, in part: “I ask that the changes you implement promote greater independence by improving incomes, encouraging work and enhancing access to core supports outside the social assistance system.”
Reforming the Ontario Works legislation, to remove the bias of ineligibility that now favours punitive rules over positive employment and social supports would require bringing it back to the legislature for fundamental reform.
Although this requires a significant investment of time and resources, new legislation can give staff clear mandates to provide positive and collaborative supports rather than choosing to enforce punitive rules. Despite being very ambitious, this is one of two recommendations I consider essential to reduce the powerful headwinds that are now keeping the one-to-many model from being implemented. My two recommendations are:
- Reform the Ontario Works legislation.
- Change privacy rules to allow informed consent of Ontario Work recipients to meet with social assistance staff as a group to pursue entrepreneurial goal.
It is commendable that the City of Toronto tested the one-to-many model in the face of the stiff headwinds created by punitive legislation, relentless audit standards, and privacy rules. Although the City of Toronto tested the waters by putting the one-to-many approach in place, the environment in which it conducted the experiment remains decidedly hostile.
For the sake of the recipients who would clearly benefit, we have every assurance from the City that they will continue to work with non-profits to implement the model once the headwinds it faces are sufficiently subdued.
 Ontario Works Act
48.(1) The Director shall,
(a) supervise the administration of this Act and the provision of assistance by delivery agents, including setting and monitoring delivery standards;
“Almost no recipient can start and maintain a business “on their own” while subject to income support rules designed to confiscate the resources needed to establish a business. And group plans are not considered a viable plan on the income support side.”
This is the second in a series of posts that explore the difficulties social assistance recipients face when pursuing self-employment or entrepreneurial options. It is co-written by John Stapleton and Leila Sarangi.
The policy vacuum
Ontario Works has two components: income supports and employment supports. To understand the genesis of these two components, we need to look back to 1998 when the government of Mike Harris created legislation to replace the General Welfare and Family Benefits legislation. Both of these older programs prohibited workfare and new legislation was needed to make good on one of Mr. Harris’ signature election promises. However, the Ontario Works legislation was conceived and written almost in entirety before the creation of employment supports. Employment supports was a last minute add-on.
Income support rules are designed to ensure that most resources are either reduced from a recipient’s Ontario Works entitlements or that his or her resources result in ineligibility for assistance. Employment support rules provide a series of exemptions and resources based on the philosophy that recipients require positive incentives and resources to move from reliance on Ontario Works to self-reliance.
There is a built-in lack of consistency regarding the application of these two supports. Sometimes the more progressive employment support rules allow a build-up of resources to permit a recipient to gain traction and move off of assistance. At other times the income support rules take precedence. Designed to move people off social assistance, often they force recipients into destitution at a basic income floor.
This creates a policy vacuum. One unintended consequence of this policy vacuum is that the system appears to invoke random events of reward and punishment. Caseworkers end up taking on outsized importance in the administration of the program. For a client, getting a “good” caseworker is like winning at rock-scissors-paper. Getting a so-called “bad” caseworker is to lose the game.
Entrepreneurship requires collaboration
For individuals on social assistance, the Ontario Works model can act as a barrier to entrepreneurship and self-employment in two ways: the caseworker you have can create barriers and the individualized approach to case management is a barrier.
Good and bad caseworkers — understood as unhelpful and helpful from the client’s perspective — can be on either the income support side or the employment side. Very often the scenario that plays out is that a “good” caseworker from the employment supports side provides resources and exemptions from income and assets that would otherwise be deducted or deemed available. A “bad” caseworker on the income supports side endlessly confiscates the income, assets, and resources that could allow a recipient to move even just a little above the basic income floor.
The fact that both caseworkers are nourished by the Ontario Works system amplifies the importance of their respective roles. If you have a good income support caseworker and a good employment caseworker everything works. If you have a bad income support caseworker the transition can be much more difficult.
Almost no recipient can start and maintain a business “on their own” while subject to income support rules designed to confiscate the resources needed to establish a business. And group plans are not considered a viable plan on the income support side.
Recognizing these barriers, Toronto Employment and Social Services (TESS) has been exploring a model called “One to Many.” The model is based on the idea of having one caseworker who represents both aspects of Ontario Works and works with a group of social assistance recipients who are trying to leave the system through entrepreneurship.
If one caseworker can work with a few people who want to collaborate on a shared plan and provide employment resources without confiscating the fruits of those resources through Ontario Works income rules, the stage could be set to implement a real trajectory for recipients to start businesses and leave the welfare program.
Testing the One-to-Many model
In 2015, Leila Sarangi, Manager, Community Programs, Women’s Habitat of Etobicoke, and Effie Vlachoyannacos, Director, Development and Community Engagement, Scadding Court Community Centre, were working on a joint program to support women who had experienced gender-based violence or were living in abusive relationships. Sarangi and Vlachoyannacos wanted to test micro-entrepreneurship as a path to safety and economic independence. They were in an exploratory phase and looking to understand how collaboration and social enterprise might be possible under Ontario Works. They made contact with the Maytree Foundation which led to a contact with John Stapleton.
Stapleton immediately thought of the policymakers at TESS and their “One to Many” model. On June 10, Stapleton, Sarangi, and Vlachoyannacoswe met with representatives from TESS to discuss opportunities. As Sarangi explains, the conditions were perfect for piloting the model. Summer provides an opportune time for vending through open air markets and Scadding Court had access to many, including a three-month pop-up market. In the summer of 2015, the City was preparing to host the Pan Am and Parapan Am Games; local and small businesses were anticipating an influx of tourism. We had a group of women who were ready to start a collaborative venture and TESS was anxious to see this pilot take advantage of these opportunities.
The women, seven in total, had decided to work together in a collaborative enterprise model to share responsibilities as well as the profits of a pop-up shop. The shop was housed in one of several containers that Scadding Court had set up at Bathurst and Niagara streets. Facilitated by the project coordinator, the women met regularly to discuss business, marketing, and financing, and to provide social supports to each other. These “cohort meetings” are a core feature of the Women’s Habitat model.
TESS assigned one liaison staff, who acted as a caseworker to the Women’s Habitat project. She is an expert analyst in entrepreneurship. She understood that to make the transition to becoming self-reliant, the women needed to be able to knit together a financial safety net through access to information as well as the full suite of benefits allowed under the employment section of the Ontario Works legislation.
She worked closely with the women entrepreneurs and project staff to better understand what it was they were setting out to achieve. She approached the women in a non-judgmental and respectful manner. She understood that some of them had had experiences with “bad caseworkers” so their trust with the Ontario Works system needed to be rebuilt.
Not only did she have outstanding customer service and communication skills, this liaison caseworker was very transparent. She informed the women about benefits they were entitled to as entrepreneurs and their purpose and limitations. She was also forthcoming about her own role as per the legislation. Her approach was to view employment supports as something the women are entitled to and that are necessary to enable successful transition off of assistance and into self-reliance.
The liaison caseworker helped each woman develop a comprehensive individualized plan within the broader framework of the collaborative project. She explained how much they could keep in the bank to run their businesses and the best way to report on savings so they wouldn’t be subjected to clawbacks from the income supports side. She provided funds for monthly transportation costs and information on TESS’s Self-Employment Development Program — a training course run by community organizations that teaches self-employment skills.
Most importantly, she understood why the women wanted to work within a collaborative model. In this model, each woman brought her own product to sell. When an item was sold, 80% of the profit went to the woman who made it to cover her costs as well as some profit. The remaining amount went back into the collective. A percentage went to the woman who operated the store and the rest went back into the business for rent, marketing, other overhead costs, and reinvestment back into the business. Sarangi explains, it wasn’t until we started working with TESS that we understood that the collective could accumulate higher business assets under the employment sections than are allowed under the income rules of the legislation.
Certainty leads to empowerment
While not an ideal framework, One-to-Many enabled the women to use Ontario Works benefits and resources to support a socially-driven collaborative enterprise model and help them on their path to self-sufficiency.
For the first time, the One-to-Many model created an oasis of certainty in a system that is otherwise characterized by random acts of proactivity and punishment. Certainty allows for empowerment and ensures that plans can be carried through to completion. The One-to-Many model is viable within the Ontario Works legal framework as the legislation is largely silent on how casework is to be performed and how opportunity is to be offered.
Our next blog will include reflections on how the model worked “on the ground” as well as plans to extend the model to test a wider array of initiatives across the City of Toronto.
 The terms “bad” and “good,” as applied to caseworkers, reflect how clients are served within the OW program. To be clear, “bad” caseworkers are not bad people or bad at their jobs. It means they may often rigidly uphold and apply the rules of the Ontario Works system according to their training in the legislation, which fosters a culture of verification and surveillance. From the point of view of the system, what we call a “good” caseworker is someone who uses discretion to assist recipients based on what will best support their efforts. What we call a “bad” caseworker is someone who first and foremost upholds the audit standards prescribed by the Ontario Works income support directives.
“The consequence of this individualized approach — often couched in the language of self-reliance and self-sufficiency — is a solitary approach to achieving financial independence.”
This is the first in a series of posts that explore the difficulties that social assistance recipients face when pursuing self-employment or entrepreneurial options. My focus is primarily on newcomers who are searching for a way to be self-reliant. I also focus on situations in which barriers are particularly acute.
Case study 1:
Afari is 45 years old. She has two children and came to Canada from Iran to escape an abusive marriage. She has two children and would like to work in retail but is unable to afford child care for her children.
Bibi is 31, from Afghanistan, has two children and is also a lone parent. She would like to train to become a nurse after she improves her English. However, she cannot leave her small children at home in order to take the necessary courses.
Ghazel is 37 years old, from Pakistan, and has five children. She is a seamstress and would like to take courses in sewing but, like Afari and Bibi, she cannot leave her children at home unattended. She is experienced in “child-minding” and sees this as a possible way to earn money.
Each of these three women receives Ontario Works benefits and child tax credits. At present, they are deferred from work requirements because they do not have access to childcare.
To empower themselves they would like to implement a plan wherein Ghazel takes care of all of their children during the day so Bibi can take nursing courses and Afari can establish herself in retail. Unfortunately, the plan is not possible under Ontario Works. Ontario Works legislation prescribes that each woman have her own caseworker and her own individual strategy and plan. Collaborative approaches are not permitted.
Case study 2:
Akram, Didar, Farid, Tabaan, Usman, and Unnefer are six men who range in age from 43 to 57. Each has a spouse and among them they have 25 children. They are from Egypt, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, and have resided in Canada for an average of three years. They met while taking English courses.
Akram trained to be a pharmacist in his home country. Didar has a degree in literature. Farid was a diplomat. Tabaan has a degree in business administration. Usman was a surgeon. Unnefer was an agricultural scientist. Each understands that it is not realistic to pursue their previous occupations in Canada. For some, their credentials are not recognized. For others, their skills are not in demand.
Akram believes he could excel as a cook, an office worker, or a social worker. Didar is skilled with computers and would like to work in information technology. Farid has legal training and would like to do something that pertains to the law. Given his degree in business, Tabaan believes he could excel in retail. Usman also believes he could work in retail. Unnefer says he is open to anything but marvels at the open fields surrounding Toronto. He says, “give me the seeds and let me use the land and you will see what I can create for you.”
All of these men are recipients of Ontario Works. To supplement their benefits they have been thinking hard about a business plan to open an Afghani Bakery. Collectively, they possess highly relevant skills for undertaking such an enterprise. One has experience in farming, one has worked as a pizza maker, another worked in the import-export sector, and one has good computer skills. Given that this product is not available in Toronto they are confident that they could establish a successful business.
However, each of the six men sees a separate caseworker. Each works on an individual strategy and employment plan that is based on what is currently available in the job market. Because of this, they are employed in sectors that do not match their experience, skills, aptitudes, or interests.
Ontario’s unbalanced welfare system
Ontario Works provides both financial support and career guidance to very low-income Ontario residents. Ontario Works was introduced in 1995 as a set of policies during the Harris administration and became law in May 1998. It is governed by strict regulations and guidelines. In the City of Toronto, Toronto Employment and Social Services (TESS) administers Ontario Works; outside of the city, 46 other Consolidated Municipal Service Managers deliver Ontario Works.
Ontario Works is a social assistance program — sometimes called “welfare” — that assists adults who are in financial need and have no resources of their own. Approximately 3% of Ontario’s population receives Ontario Works support, which can include prescription drugs, a limited array of special benefits, and access to employment support programs. The program has two components: income supports and employment supports.
The legislation upon which Ontario Works is based demonstrates that the system is largely concerned with the individual. The preamble to the legislation reads:
“1. To establish a program that,
(a) recognizes individual responsibility and promotes self-reliance through employment;
(b) provides temporary financial assistance to those most in need while they satisfy obligations to become and stay employed;
(c) effectively serves people needing assistance; and
(d) is accountable to the taxpayers of Ontario.”
In many ways, the legislation is informed by the idea that poverty is a personal deficit that individuals must overcome “on their own.” The consequence of this individualized approach — often couched in the language of self-reliance and self-sufficiency — is a solitary approach to achieving financial independence.
Income Support rules
Income support regulations are based on the philosophy that the level of support provided ensures a basic “floor income” below which an eligible applicant in Ontario should not be permitted to fall. A corollary to this philosophy is that when a recipient obtains more resources, income support should pay less in order to be consistent with the floor income concept.
Ontario Works income support rules, like all social assistance programs in Canada, are calculated based on a budget deficit method. This method calls for the subtraction of income, from a prescribed social assistance rate. This rate varies by family size, composition, and shelter type. For example, the Ontario Works social assistance rate for a single person is $681 a month in 2016. Non-exempt income is subtracted from this rate. A non-exempted income of $300 a month in would result in an Ontario Works payment of $381 a month.
Earnings are encouraged under Ontario Works and net employment income is deducted at 50% on the dollar after an initial exemption of $200 a month. This is commonly referred to as the clawback.
On the income support side, the focus is on ensuring that a recipient’s days are filled with productive activity. There is little concern with whether such activities are aligned with the aptitudes, preferences, interests, abilities, experiences, or previous training of the recipient.
Employment Support rules
The employment support system is designed so that recipients spend a sizable amount of time engaged in employment-related activities. They also need to prove that they are engaged in such activities.
Prescribed Employment Supports include employment consultation and planning, preparation and training, job placement services, transportation, coaching, tools and equipment, the services of an interpreter, and mobility devices.
The employment support program encourages recipients to engage in group processes, but the caseworkers only meet with recipients one-on-one and only work with individual plans.
Resources provided to recipients to pursue self-employment are subject to liquid asset limits. Under income supports a single recipient can have up to $2,500 in liquid assets; a family of three can have $5,500.
Under employment supports, the rules are more generous. These rules exempt tools of the trade and business assets that are necessary to the operation of a business, up to a maximum, for each such person and for each business, of $20,000.
The more generous rules are only applied when an individual plan is approved. If it is not approved by both the employment support side and the income support side, then the lower income support asset rules apply.
The income versus employment conundrum
There is an important conundrum that bedevils the Ontario Works system and the employment supports and resources needed to engage in entrepreneurship activity.
It can be phrased this way: recipients require significant resources to engage in entrepreneurial activities but these same resources can be confiscated by Ontario Works in order to comply with the income support rules.
Beyond the rules surrounding earnings, there is another very critical regulation that considers the matter of resources deemed available to a recipient. This regulation is:
- “(1) If the administrator is not satisfied that a member of a benefit unit is making reasonable efforts to obtain compensation or realize a financial resource or income that the person may be entitled to or eligible for, the administrator may determine that the person is not eligible for basic financial assistance or reduce the amount of basic financial assistance granted by the amount of the compensation, financial resource or income that in his or her opinion is available or would have been available had reasonable efforts been made to obtain or realize it. O. Reg. 134/98, s. 13 (1).”
In other words, the resources needed to start a business or to engage in entrepreneurial activity can be seen by income support workers as resources that can reduce the assistance they receive. The resources required by a recipient to start a business are not universally regarded as exempt from income support rules and the discretion in the system to exempt resources is not exercised in the same way.
Some income support caseworkers judge the “resources deemed available” to have primacy over the resources provided and move to penalize the recipient. Others exempt the resources. Reporting to multiple workers, who have different approaches, almost always thwarts group collaboration in this respect.
Almost no recipient can start and maintain a business “on their own” while subject to income support rules designed to confiscate the resources needed to establish a business. This conundrum is compounded by the fact that groups of recipients will have multiple workers. Also, the income support program and the employment support program are supported through different caseworkers.
Despite their strategies being collaborative, for the women wishing to setup a day care cooperative and the men wishing to launch a bakery, they must each present an individual employment plan to their employment support caseworker that depends solely on their own individual efforts. Having individual caseworkers means no collaborative plan is possible. It is also the case that the very resources they will require to invest in their businesses may be seen in the eyes of the system as resources that can be clawed back.
Solving the dilemma
In order to provide supports and resources for self-employment, Ontario Works administrators must distinguish between personal liquid assets and assets that are, or will be, necessary for business operations. In other words, it is necessary to firewall employment supports and resources from the income support rules designed to confiscate those resources. To be able to pursue their plans, the residents of the RNE neighbourhoods would require a period of relief from income support rules. Both groups would require an “incubation period” in order to be able to show results and prove successful.
To the extent that administrators successfully firewall the two sides of Ontario Works, employment supports could help individuals and groups gain traction on an entrepreneurial pathway to self-employment. To the extent that the individual income support caseworker maintains control over basic eligibility for assistance at subsistence levels, the employment supports side can’t enable a collaborative approach toward collective entrepreneurship.
Fortunately, Toronto Employment and Social Services has developed a new experimental model that respects entrepreneurship and understands the need to provide consistent messaging to recipients and organizations undertaking group entrepreneurship. It is called the “one-to-many” model and the odyssey that resulted in that model is the subject of a future posting.