Open Letter: Ontario social assistance recipients need a basic living standard

May 16, 2022

We are community advocates and peer researchers with lived experience of low income Ontario Works (OW) and Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) who live and work in Toronto. We work with scientists and staff at MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions at St. Michael’s Hospital to align our community priorities with health equity research in partnership with other agencies across Toronto. As MAP Community Expert Group members, we are calling upon all registered political parties, leaders, and MPP candidates in Ontario to take action on the challenges that OW and ODSP recipients experience. We face low financial assistance rates and income claw-backs that hit hard, especially for single adults with lived experience of mental health issues and poverty.

We are united in our disappointment with the current amounts we are forced to live on and the punitive claw-backs of other forms of income that are part of the design of Ontario social assistance programs. Health care staff, clinicians, scientists at MAP and advocates across Toronto are co-signatories of this letter to indicate their agreement and solidarity.  

“A modernized social assistance system must recognize that not all citizens are able to remain attached to the labor market and when they are unable to participate in labor market activities, the support programs that they are forced to rely on must reflect the actual costs that the market commands to ensure that recipients are able to afford the rent, other necessities of life and to put food on the table to improve their social determinants of health.” – ODSP recipient

Ontario social assistance rates are insufficient to cover basic needs 

There are 863,000 people in Ontario who rely on social assistance programs, and we acknowledge Ontario’s government’s responsibility to provide financial assistance to meet basic living expenses, health and employment services to these Ontarians. However, single adults only receive up to $733 per month under OW and up to $1,169 per month on ODSP for basic needs and shelter. These amounts are simply not enough. The vast majority of provinces and territories do not index social assistance rates to the cost of living. This contributes to many people’s inability to meet their basic needs or to exit the program with sufficient resources. In Ontario, rates have not increased since 2018 and have not kept up with inflation of 10% –  In addition, single individuals on OW and ODSP experience a 63 percent and 40 percent poverty gap respectively when their rates are compared with official poverty standards.

The amount of money provided to cover basic needs such as food and shelter is not reflective of the increasing cost of living in Ontario, particularly in Toronto. OW allocates $390 per month to a single adult for shelter, thus making it impossible to secure housing. Current market rents for a shared room in Toronto now exceed $500 per month everywhere in the City, effectively excluding recipients from securing adequate accommodation. Moreover, it leaves them either in precariously housed situations or at-risk of homelessness.

In addition, well over half (59%) of people on social assistance in Ontario experience food insecurity and are more likely to rely on food banks, as the amounts they receive are not sufficient to cover food or transportation.

We find shameful the provincial Government’s failure to recognize that Ontario’s social assistance programs do not meet the needs of its recipients. This situation points to a lack of inclusion of community voices in policy decision making. We strongly recommend that the new provincial government align recipients’ incomes with a basic living standard along with annual inflationary increases.

“The OW shelter money is not high enough to rent a room. I have to use 2/3 of my basic money to cover the rent which leave me nothing much for food, transportation and other expenses. Even so, the room is shabby resulting in bad living conditions. The shelter allowance forces people into homelessness and puts them at a greater risk for poor health.” – OW recipient

We applaud the efforts of various community organizations and advocates who have petitioned to index the programs’ rates with the current inflation rate. Others have called on the provincial government increase the rates to $2,000 per month. This amount aligns with the Federal Government’s COVID-19 Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) program which was deemed a basic income for individuals affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Complicated and punitive benefit claw-backs do not help recipients to stabilize their life

The punitive benefit claw-backs on income in OW and ODSP, combined with limited availability of supportive services and systemic barriers, prevent many people from securing stable employment. Precarious employment such as part-time jobs or short-term contracts have become more common in Ontario’s labour market, and low-income earners are overrepresented in these jobs. Social assistance recipients who take these jobs to supplement their income are constantly worried about having to pay back their benefits if their income exceeds a certain amount. Moreover, individuals with a disability have a harder time finding employment that offers adequate accommodations, a living wage, and stable benefits.

“ODSP does not encourage us to improve our lives, they restrict us from moving forward. Forcing us to be stagnant. Additionally, Government strategies to modernization Ontario Social Assistance programs have never provided us with any significant advantages but further complicate the process.” – ODSP recipient

“The claw-back of 50 percent for each additional dollar earned above $200 is too punitive to incentivize ODSP recipients to move into the labour market, as it fails to move them out of deep poverty. This threshold should be increased to $800 to reflect increasing costs of living.” – ODSP recipient

Income claw-backs and exemption rate policies are often unclear to recipients and create a dynamic that discourages people from seeking employment. Additionally, in some instances it leaves recipients worse off than if they did not pursue any type of employment.

It is imperative that punitive income claw-backs are lessened and the exemptions on earned income are increased. Facilitating more pathways for recipients to earn more income will not only help people work towards their financial goals, but will ultimately reduce their dependence on social assistance programs.

“Anyone earning more than $300.00 per month ends up losing earned income and their Work Incentive benefit.  For instance, if person earned $300 plus the work incentive they should have collected $400.00 but with ODSP’s calculation they only get $350. As people earn more, they lose more of their earned money. Additionally, Rent/Food/Incidentals have not been adequately covered to survive in the City” – ODSP recipient  

These factors create barriers for people and negatively impact their quality of life. Social assistance recipients have limited access to preventative healthcare services not covered through the provincial or municipal government programs. While a few basic services such as dental care are covered for ODSP recipients, OW recipients have very little coverage, and therefore very little access to basic services. It has been shown that recipients of social assistance programs have worse health outcomes than non-recipients. Lack of priority for  Ontarians living in poverty is costly for our healthcare system, and will continue to escalate in costs as people experience more poverty-related negative health outcomes. As we approach Ontario’s provincial election in June, we strongly urge political parties to develop, publicize, and commit to more responsive and equity-based social assistance programs that are tailored to the real needs of recipients.

Thank you for your attention to these vital issues that greatly affect the health and wellbeing of low- income people in Ontario. We hope our political leaders support our recommendations and commit to providing financial support for all Ontarians to have good health and thrive in our communities.


MAP Community Expert Group members

Bee Lee Soh 

Rene Adams 

Daniela Mergarten 

Sa’ad Talia 

Veronica Snooks 

Opal Sparks 

Supported by:

Stephen Hwang Physician in General Internal Medicine and Research Scientist, MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions

Shazeen Suleman Investigator, MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions

Galo F. Ginocchio Research Coordinator, Unity Health Toronto – St. Michael’s Hospital

Sloane Freeman Pediatrician, St. Michael’s Hospital, Unity Health Toronto

Vikram Jayanth Ramalingam Research Assistant, MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions, St. Michaels Hospital

Anne-Marie Tynan Research Program Manager, MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions

Sean B. Rourke, PhD, FCAHS Scientist, MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions, St. Michael’s Hospital

Flora Matheson Scientist, Unity Health Toronto

John Ecker Research Manager, MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions, Unity Health Toronto

Uzma Ahmed Research Coordinator, MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions

Areesha Sabir Research Coordinator, St. Michael’s Hospital, Unity Health Toronto

Alyssa Ranieri Homeless Outreach Counselor, Unity Health Toronto

Sharmistha Mishra Associate Professor & Infectious Disease Specialist, University of Toronto & Unity Health Toronto

Sherry Hao Research Assistant ll, MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions

Suzanne Zerger Research Program Manager, MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions, Unity Health

Madison Ford Research Coordinator, MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions

Ray Baran Research Coordinator, REACH Nexus

Stephanie Arlt Research Coordinator, MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions

Antigone Darsini CRC II, St. Michael’s Hospital

Dr. Naomi Thulien Scientist, MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions, St. Michael’s Hospital Unity Health Toronto

Sam Filipenko Business Manager, Well Living House

Kate Francombe Pridham Research Program Manager – Homelessness, Housing, and Health, MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions

Jillian Macklin MD/PhD Student, University of Toronto

James R Dunn Professor / Scientist, McMaster University / St. Michael’s Hospital

Dana Shearer Knowledge Translation Broker, Ontario Drug Policy Research Network

Darrell Tan Clinician-Scientist, St Michael’s Hospital

charles ozzoude Health Researcher , St. Michael’s Hospital

layla jabbour Research Program Manager, Centre on Drug Policy Evaluation

Michelle Catchpole Business Analyst, MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions

Amy Craig-Neil Research Coordinator, MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions, Unity Health Toronto

Heather McLean Research Assistant II, MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions Centre on Drug Policy Evaluation

Ahmed Bayoumi Clinician Scientist, MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions, St. Michael’s Hospital, Unity Health Toronto

Jesse Isadora Reisman Jenkinson Postdoctoral Fellow, MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions, Unity Health Toronto

Nazlee Maghsoudi Manager, Policy Impact Unit, Centre on Drug Policy Evaluation

Kimberly Devotta Research Manager, Unity Health Toronto

Indhu Rammohan Graduate student, Centre for Drug Policy Evaluation

Jeanette Bowles  Postdoctoral Fellow, Centre on Drug Policy Evaluation: St. Michael’s Hosptial

Lisa Schlosser Peer Support Specialist, SMH

Janet Brown  Director Strategic Projects, MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions

Tara Kiran Family Physician and Associate Professor,  University of Toronto

Anne Rucchetto Research staff, Unity Health Toronto

Evie Gogosis Research Manager, MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions

Paige Homme  Medical Student, Year 3, University of Toronto

Pearl Buhariwala Research Manager, MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions

Melissa Perri Research Assistant, MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions

Parvin Merchant Director – Tenant and Member Service, Houselink and Mainstay Community Housing

Vanesa Berenstein Research Coordinator, MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions

Rachel Ma Research Volunteer, MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions

Paneet Gill Practicum Student, MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions St Micheal’s Hospital

Dan Werb Director, Centre on Drug Policy Evaluation

Elham Rasoulian Research Coordinator I, MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions

Lisa Baker Mental Health Outreach Worker, Unity Health

Joy Connelly Housing consultant and advocate, Connelly Consulting Services

Christina Muratore Care and Transitions Facilitator, St. Michael’s Hospital

Shelagh Pizey-Allen Executive Director, TTCriders

Rosalie Donaldson-Kronenbuerger social worker, Unity Health Toronto

Michael Creek Director Strategic Initiatives, Working for Change

Ali Minaei ODSP Recipient, N/A

Samar Abdulle Research Coordinator, Unity Health Toronto

Aiko Ito Client Intervention Worker MSW RSW, Dixon Hall Neighbourhood Services

Victor Willis Executive Director, PARC (The Parkdale Activity – Recreation Centre Toronto)

Trevor Manson Secretary Co-chair, ODSP Action Coalition

Ryan Peck Executive Director, HIV & AIDS Legal Clinic Ontario (HALCO)

Steve Durant Research Coordinator, The Upstream Lab, MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions, Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute, Unity Health Toronto

Zahra Tahlil Outreach-Emergency Department, St.Michael’s Hospital

Elizabeth Mulholland CEO, Prosper Canada

Devorah Kobluk Senior Policy Analyst, Income Security Advocacy Centre (ISAC)

Fiona Penny Social Worker, St Michael’s Hospital

Indira Fernando research manager, St. Michael’s hospital

Chi-Hang Jonathan Sinn MPH Practicum Student, MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions (St. Michael’s Hospital)

Emily Holton Communications & Marketing Manager, MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions

Feroza Mohammed Community Worker; Member, Local Champions’ Network, Autonomous Residents’ Leadership Network

Zoe Greenwald PhD Candidate in Epidemiology, University of Toronto

Alexandra Carasco Research Coordinator, MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions

Samantha Myers Research Assistant II, St. Michael’s Hospital

Amy Katz, Knowledge Translation Specialist, MAP, St. Michael’s Hospital, Unity Health Toronto

John Stapleton, Principal, Open Policy

Heather McGregor, CEO, YWCA Toronto

Melissa Goldstein, No affiliation

Charles Ritchie, No affiliation

Melody Li, Executive Director, Homeless Connect Toronto

Gary Bloch Family Physician, Unity Health Toronto

Adam cohoon Founder, Moreaccessible

Terry Pariseau, Coordinated Access Engagement Coordinator, Toronto Alliance to End Homelessness

Diana Chan McNally, Training and Engagement Coordinator,Toronto Drop-in Network

Miranda Schreiber, U of T

Allison Meserve, Senior Manager , Prosper Canada

Benjamin Wong, Epidemiologist

Rev. Steve Hoffard, Pastor, Redeemer Lutheran – Toronto

Steve Joseph, Torresan Treasurer, Dream Team

Shalini Konanur, Executive Director / Lawyer, South Asian Legal Clinic of Ontario

Edward Russell, Volunteer Gardener/Yardman, Houselink/Mainstay

Ayan Yusuf, Research Coordinator, MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions

David Meyers, Senior Manager, Centre for Independent Living in Toronto

Shurrytwo Pan, Social Assistance, No affiliation

Nathalie Noël

Oksana Grebnytska, Co-Founder, Social Assistance Coalition of Scarborough (SACS)

Alies Maybee, Citizen n/a

Geena Ross, Advocate, No Affiliation

Teresa Northcote, ODSP Recipient

Anne Gloger, Principal, Openly Connected

Helen P Watt, Senior Program Officer, Prosper Canada

David Meyers, Coalition Partner representative, GTA Disability Coalition

akiesha phillips, SACS

Elizabeth Tremblay, Founder Mentor/Mentee Canada and Peer House Toronto

Amie Tsang, Health Equity Facilitator, CMHA Toronto

Heath Soave, Anti-Poverty, Paralegal

Angie Peters, President & CEO, Yonge Street Mission

Carrie Wong, Manager, Learning and Training Prosper Canada

Michael Anhorn, CEO Canadian Mental Health Association Toronto Branch

Sivabalan Arulnanthysivam, injured worker, Voice of Scarborough member.

Melissa Blacktopp, no affiliation

Savhanna J Wilson, Associate Director, Toronto Alliance to End Homelessness

Marlene Rathbone, No affiliation

Kathlyn Babaran-Henfrey, Research Coordinator, Unity Health Toronto