“I said as long as I’m here, there are no losers,” she says, explaining the marching orders she has given to ministry bureaucrats.
It is also the challenge she has presented to members of a working group she will announce Wednesday to help her forge an action plan over the next 14 months.
The goal is to create a system of support both inside and outside social assistance that providesadequate incomes, is simple to understand and is administered equitably across the province.
Jaczek hopes to begin implementing the reforms in January 2018, once the provincial deficit has been erased.
“We aren’t going to be calling it social assistance reform,” the 65-year-old minister says in a wide-ranging interview about her sprawling portfolio that also includes support for adults with developmental disabilities.
“Because when we say income security, we are talking about all low-income people, not just the welfare wall and the disincentives to getting off social assistance.”
The working group, which will include advocates, experts and those who have experienced poverty, will work in parallel to the province’s proposed basic-income pilot. The project, which will study a form of guaranteed annual income, is scheduled to begin a year from now, she says.
Former Conservative senator Hugh Segal, who co-authored a 2009 report with Liberal Senator Art Eggleton that recommended studying the concept, was appointed last Friday to help design the pilot, including possible test sites, delivery models and evaluation methods. Segal’s discussion paper is due at the end of the summer.
The government will use his report to consult on the pilot project’s final design and implementation during the fall and winter, Jaczek says.
Income security reform and the basic-income pilot are happening in parallel because “one needs to inform the other,” she says.
As a physician and former York Region medical officer of health for 18 years, Jaczek understands the link between income and health.
But she also knows that the public’s perception of a basic income is potentially problematic.
“We want to be really realistic in the design of the pilot or pilots so that people will go along with us and understand that this is worth investigating,” says the minister who represents the riding of Oak Ridges-Markham, one of the most affluent in the province.
In the meantime, Jaczek wants to continue with “simple changes” to make life easier for people on social assistance.
In May, she began piloting a reloadable payment card for the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP). The card will allow those without bank accounts to access their benefits without having to pay cheque-cashing outlets.
In last spring’s budget, the government announced plans to end dollar-for-dollar clawbacks of child-support payments for single parents on social assistance by early next year.
While the budget didn’t indicate how much money parents would be permitted to keep under the change, Jaczek is expected to announce the full amount will be exempt from clawbacks.
“Why would we want to take away money intended for children?” she says.
The minister has also changed earning exemption rules in months with three pay periods for people on social assistance with part-time or occasional jobs.
In the past, the extra payday meant some people were automatically kicked off the system, lost their health benefits and were forced to reapply the following month.
“This made absolutely no sense. So we’ve fixed that,” Jaczek says.
In November, she will introduce a simpler medical review process for disabled people as part of what she hopes will be monthly improvements to both Ontario Works and ODSP, until broader reforms are rolled out in January 2018.
Jaczek admits her mandate was thrown off kilter by massive problems with the province’s new$242 million SAMS welfare computer system, which went online shortly after she assumed her post.
But almost two years after more than $20 million in overpayments were lost and thousands saw their welfare or disability benefits reduced or delayed, Jaczek feels most of the software glitches and training issues have been resolved and the system is beginning to work as envisioned.
As a result, the ministry is testing a scheme that would allow people on social assistance to access their files online to make changes and report income.
“There is ongoing work with user friendliness,” she said. “But we never would have been able to do that with the old system.”
Jennefer Laidley, of the Income Security Advocacy Centre, a legal aid clinic that represents people on social assistance, says Jaczek’s approach so far has been “a breath of fresh air.”
“It’s so refreshing — and heartening — to have a minister who says she’s dedicated to getting rid of prohibitive rules with an eye to having these programs make more sense for the people who rely on them,” she says.
“We have never heard these kinds of things before from the government,” she adds. “But as the saying goes, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating.”
Jaczek acknowledges it will take money to ensure there are no losers as a result of her plans to reform income security for low-income Ontarians.
But is government willing to spend it?
“I think that is fairly obvious and I think my cabinet colleagues know that,” she says. “I lobby the sympathetic ones all the time.”
Low income in Ontario by the numbers
453,000: Number living on Ontario Works (OW) benefits.
543,000: Number living on Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) benefits.
$681: Monthly OW benefit for a single person.
$1,110: Monthly ODSP benefit for a single person.
$1,744: Monthly income, after taxes, for a single person to live at the poverty line.
$940: Average monthly rent for a bachelor apartment in Toronto.
$141.50: Cost of a monthly Metropass.