Do not leave out women’s experiences on social assistance

September 25, 2018

What does being on social assistance look like for women? This question is often left out of public discussions, even though women in Ontario have higher poverty rates than the general Ontario population. And, 37% of single-women led families in Toronto live in poverty.

YWCA Toronto’s position on social assistance reform is clear: the provincial government must raise the rates for the more than 900,000 recipients of social assistance in our province. In Toronto, where the average rental cost of a one bedroom apartment is $1,904 per month, a single person on Ontario Works receives a maximum of $721 per month and a single parent with two children receives a maximum of $1,269 per month – glaringly inadequate rates.

In our Violence Against Women shelters, women receive a personal needs allowance from Ontario Works of $4.20 per day, which is insufficient to meet daily needs, pay down debts or plan for the future. Women and children without immigration status are not even eligible for this inadequate allowance.

To meet women’s diverse needs, we must broaden the lens.

Economic security means that women can properly feed, house and take care of themselves and their families. It means that women are less likely to become trapped in abusive situations and that they can rebuild after leaving. Yet, rather than provide economic security, our current social assistance structure perpetuates deep poverty and marginalization. We desperately need system reform.

Employment Focus

YWCA Toronto has created programs that promote women’s economic security, like our Employment Focus program. This program supports women on social assistance to gain job-readiness skills. Over ten weeks, women explore their skillsets and interests, learn about labour market trends, set career goals and are connected with resources to meet them. Most are empowered to pursue skills upgrading and advance in their employment journeys.

“After accessing our program, participants report an increase in self-esteem and motivation and feel more supported – not just by YWCA Toronto – but by their peers…. They report feeling more empowered to take on the next step,” says Sanna Toelke, program administrator at Employment Focus.  She explains that her job is centered on helping women to identify their strengths and move forward confidently.

Employment Focus is uniquely women-centered. As Sanna puts it: “I wholeheartedly believe in women’s programming. In a mixed group, women’s voices may not be heard. They may not participate as freely. We provide a space to talk about things that women are experiencing [on social assistance], which can be different from what men experience. It is important to talk about those things…and we try to find ways to overcome those challenges.”

A mere tweaking of the system is not an option.

Community support programs – and the dedicated staff who run them – are critical for women to join or return to the labour market. Such programs should be adequately funded. That said, discussions about social assistance reform must go beyond employment. In other words, you cannot talk about ‘getting Ontarians to work,’ without talking about raising social assistance rates, gender-based violence, affordable child care and housing, food security, and so on. You need to create good jobs and take action to ensure living wages and fair employment standards are upheld. To meet women’s diverse needs, we must broaden the lens.

Achieving Economic Security

Social assistance reform is not a new issue. Policy consultations and reports are legion and describe a failing system. Recently, the 2017 Roadmap for Change report set out a 10-year blueprint for income security reform. Amongst the comprehensive recommendations are adopting a minimum income standard, an urgent increase to rates, and a focus on employment supports. The report explains, “a mere tweaking of the system is not an option.” YWCA Toronto supports this position.

As the Ontario government moves forward with a social assistance reform agenda, it is on all of us to ensure that the voices of women with lived experience of poverty and violence, and advocates working with equity-seeking communities, are heard. We need bold action to ensure that every resident of Ontario can live in dignity and with economic security.

Here is how YOU can help: Join the movement for an effective and compassionate social assistance system in Ontario. Check out this Action Kit put together the Income Security Advocacy Centre here.

Etana Cain, Manager of Advocacy and Communications & Jasmine Ramze Rezaee, Senior Marketing and Advocacy Officer