MEGAN STACEY Updated: January 6, 2020
Nearly one-third of Londoners getting off social assistance are finding work, outpacing provincial targets and bringing the caseload to a low that hasn’t been seen in years, 2019 figures show.
The number of people on Ontario Works dropped by about 10 per cent in London last year, with the welfare caseload expected to rest around 10,700 by the end of December. It’s the first time since 2013 that number dipped below 11,000.
City officials say the change is a result of staff working harder to connect people with job skills and work training programs, but one poverty expert warns the numbers don’t tell the full story.
“It’s great to have this momentum. We’ve sort of been stagnant at 12,000,” said Kevin Dickins, city hall’s manager of employment and income supports.
Thirty per cent of people getting off Ontario Works last year had found employment, a rate well above the provincial target for London.
But finding a job doesn’t mean it’s a well-paying job, social justice advocate Sue Wilson said. She’s the director of systemic justice with the Sisters of St. Joseph and co-chair of the London Poverty Research Centre.
“We need to look at the quality . . . we don’t have a clear picture,” Wilson said.
“The concern would be that they’re going from Ontario Works, which is such an intense level of poverty — really, people spend a lot of their effort just trying to survive — into a slightly less intense experience of poverty, which is not really moving us forward as a city.”
The 30 per cent rate also means more than two-thirds of people moving off social assistance in London aren’t doing so because they found work. Instead, they may have moved, shifted to the higher-paying Ontario Disability Support Program, or simply stopped collecting assistance without closing their file.
Still, the positive trends are a bright spot in a city that’s struggled with joblessness and a lagging labour participation rate, an issue The Free Press is exploring in a series called Face It.
Dwayne Hill landed a job running the kitchen at the Hamilton Road Seniors’ Centre in 2017, designing near-daily menus to meet all kinds of dietary preferences, after 10 years on Ontario Works.
“It’s the best job I’ve ever had,” the 39-year-old said.
He also has been sharing his food knowledge in schools, teaching Thames Valley District school board students about traditional Indigenous meals.
“I started cooking when I was six years old,” Hill said, later gaining experience catering with family members and later on his own.
Sweet wild rice casserole is his specialty.
Hill worked part time at a hotel restaurant while on assistance — Ontario Works is “not the best income,” he said — and still takes evening and weekend shifts there.
Approaching his 40th birthday this week, Hill spent six months homeless and living in motels before moving into a new apartment in December.
He’d fallen victim to a rental scam that robbed him of first and last month’s rent.
But he said maintaining a positive attitude, setting personal goals and having the support of friends and family helped him move from assistance to full-time work.
Hill also credits the Bridges Out of Poverty program in London with helping him land the seniors centre post. That initiative builds confidence, social networks, and connects people on assistance with volunteer mentors, often people who have been through the same journey.
London has embraced the program, which has saved hundreds of thousands of dollars and sees more than half its graduates get jobs.
Michael Courey, co-ordinator of the London Poverty Research Centre, suggested the Bridges program may be one reason, along with London employment agencies, why more people are able to stop drawing social assistance. Staff made 15 per cent more referrals to organizations such as Goodwill and Pathways, which offer help sprucing up resumes, training and assistance in job hunting — an increase city hall’s Dickins credits with the overall changes.
The city’s low employment rate — the lowest among all regions measured in Canada until very recently — also may suggest there are lots of jobs available for people coming off Ontario Works, Courey said.