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Trapped in a never-ending cycle of poverty

More than 3,000 Guelph residents receive payments from the Ontario Disability Support Program; the money can be barely enough to survive, never mind get ahead

Grocery shopping is a nerve-wracking experience for Sharon, as it is for many people receiving social assistance. It’s a desperate situation made worse by the recent spike in food prices as her support holds steady.

There hasn’t been an increase in Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) payments since 2018, and even that one was 1.5 per cent. Statistics Canada reports the cost of food alone rose by 4.6 per cent in 2020 and 2021 combined.

ODSP is a provincially provided social assistance program for people experiencing assessed long-term mental or physical disabilities that negatively impact their ability to work. Last year there were approximately 3,400 ODSP recipient individuals and families in Guelph, with another 1,300 throughout Wellington County.

With weeks remaining in the month, the Guelph resident is looking for the biggest bang for her few remaining bucks in hopes of being able to get through to the next round of the “never-ending cycle.”

Her fingers tightly crossed, Sharon hopes no unexpected expenses pop up. Even relatively small things such as needing new bedding or experiencing a flat tire can prove to be difficult to overcome when your budget for the month after paying rent is $321, which has to cover groceries, phone and Internet, home and vehicle insurance as well as gasoline.

There is little to no wiggle room and certainly no excess to spend on enjoyment, entertainment or participating in community events.

“Don’t throw anything else at me because I can’t handle it,” said Sharon, who asked that her last name not be used. “You’re always on, always figuring out ‘how can I get myself through this?’"

“It's defeating because it doesn't matter what I do, I'm still going to be fighting my way through the month to survive.”

Social assistance is an ineffective program that keeps people in poverty, said Dominica McPherson, director of Guelph & Wellington Task Force for Poverty Elimination.

“Rates are woefully inadequate and fall significantly short of providing people with enough money to meet basic needs and live with dignity,” McPherson said.

“There is a great number of people who are struggling in our community, that are experiencing poverty. That definitely includes people living on social assistance.” 

Sharon has no choice but to scour for grocery sale items and focus her attention on things she can make a variety of meals out of so she’s not left repeatedly eating the same things simply because they’re inexpensive and relatively filling. 

If they come with nutritional value, that’s a bonus.

“I used to love cooking. I used to love grocery shopping. Now it's like, I get in the grocery store and I just stand there,” said Sharon. “It's really hard. I keep thinking about going grocery shopping. I'm like ‘oh my God’ because I can't just do a grocery list and go to the grocery store and get it. 

“It's like, okay, butter – not this week,” she said, adding, “meat is a treat.”

Though she “despises” using food banks, Sharon has come to terms with the fact she needs that help to get by and is grateful for the support they provide.

“You already are stripped of your dignity, and then you’ve got to go there and line up like cattle,” she said, noting this is yet another circumstance where she said she’s had to prove need in order to get help. “There's got to be a better way.”

Province-wide there were about 371,500 ODSP recipients, Daniel Schults, spokesperson for the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services, told GuelphToday.

There are a number of variables that determine how much monthly money each receives, Schultz explained, listing off things such as whether there are children involved, if the recipient rents or owns their home, or is living in a retirement facility, and if they have income beyond ODSP.

For singles, ODSP payments range between $672 and $1,169 monthly. Single parents with one child receive between $815 and $1,596, while a couple with two children would see between $969 and $1,887.

The average monthly payment per case in 2020/2021 province-wide was $1,099.

“Outside of social assistance, there are also a variety of federal and provincial income-tested benefits available to Ontarians, including ODSP and Ontario Works recipients, that help with the costs of daily living,” Schultz said via email, pointing to income tax relief efforts and a program aimed at helping people with low to moderate incomes cover energy costs and property taxes.

In addition to ODSP, Sharon receives $1,058 per month through the Canadian Pension Plan disability benefits program, but notes that amount is clawed back by ODSP, which actually provides her about $110 per month, leaving her with $321 after rent is paid.

Maggie, another Guelph resident on ODSP who is a single parent with a young child, receives $1,637 per month in social assistance – $987 from ODSP (includes $100 for special dietary needs), a mid-month $563 child tax benefit and an $87 Trillium benefit. 

Once rent’s paid and her other monthly bills are covered, she’s left with $1,021 – about half of which is spent on groceries for the two of them.

Without the rent subsidy she receives, valued at $976, her pre-grocery budget would be $24 per month.

“It’s life-changing for me,” she said of the rent subsidy. “So many people on ODSP don’t have access to that.”

One-off expenses aren’t uncommon, especially when there’s a young child in the equation, which add to Maggie’s budget pressures. She doesn’t receive child support.

Asked to provide some examples, she said she previously had to contribute $200 per month for medication she needed, and points to the cost of children’s glasses which weren’t completely covered by insurance.

As a result, she had no choice but to take less of the medication than prescribed “just so I could afford it.”

“This is survivable, only survivable,” Maggie said of the financial supports, adding she feels a “sense of shame” and questions whether she’s “failed in life” because she depends on them. 

“It doesn't feel good that I have to even use those because it's not like I set out to want to have to rely on these handouts from everyone.”

Maggie, like Sharon, acknowledges she experiences mental health struggles, which they say is made worse by regularly having to “jump through hoops” to explain and prove need in order to get help.

“It's retraumatizing, definitely,” said Maggie. “I just get really angry because it's like I don't want to be in this situation, where I have no support with a child. 

“You just constantly feel like you're not worthy or you're a burden.”

Not only should monthly payments increase to help recipients do more than “just survive,” the two feel steps should be taken to eliminate the need for most people to depend on social supports.

If more was done earlier, when the trauma or other situation first occurred, there would be less need for ODSP, they agree.

“I think the fact that there's not counselling, trauma, other medical modalities that help a ton of people, the fact that those are not covered, those could greatly improve people's chances of not needing ODSP, or being able to work,” said Maggie. 

“But because they can't access those in the first place, there's no chance because a lot of people can't access foods they need, the vitamins they need, then it makes their ailments worse, so they're not able to get better to potentially work in the future.”

“And I think one of the biggest keys is that you've got to get these people enough money to actually live, not just survive, live,” added Sharon, pointing to the amount of energy and focus spent worrying about day-to-day finances. 

“It's exhausting. I'd be much more productive out in the big, wide world if I could actually stop worrying about how I'm getting through another day.”

Getting through another day was precisely the objective last year, when Sharon was diagnosed with cancer. She underwent radiation and chemotherapy in Kitchener, which came with challenges unto itself.

“I'm already emotionally devastated, I'm trying to focus on ‘I need to get better,’ but my focus is, ‘Oh God, how am I going to get back and forth? How am I going to get groceries in here?' ” she explained.

“I can't be the only one that has come up against those kinds of things,” Sharon added. “It's not okay, just not okay to treat people like that.”

Social assistance is meant to be a “program of last resort,” notes McPherson, but it’s not helping people get back on their feet and start the process of thriving.

“We know too often it entraps people in a vicious cycle of poverty that contributes to significant pressure on people which can lead to implications for their mental health and well-being,” she said, calling for rate increases that are linked to inflation.

“We also need robust investment in culturally appropriate, trauma-informed, client-centred, wrap-around services and supports to provide people with life stabilization. We know people enter into experiences of poverty for a number of reasons and that one solution alone is not enough.

"We need to look at this as multi-faceted because people’s experiences with poverty are complex.”


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Richard Vivian

About the Author: Richard Vivian

Richard Vivian is an award-winning journalist and longtime Guelph resident. He joined the GuelphToday team as assistant editor in 2020, largely covering municipal matters and general assignment duties
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