Ontario Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk’s recent analysis of the province’s welfare program for the disabled has added more fuel to fears that cuts are coming for those who rely on the program’s meagre supports.
The auditor’s findings that the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) caseload has increased by 50 per cent in the past decade while costs have soared by 75 per cent have also caught the attention of Todd Smith, minister for children, community and social services, who says the report “shows we need to do something.”
But Lysyk’s report ignores the basic premise of the exercise.
The essential job of Ontario’s auditor general is to review each ministry’s books against the backdrop of their estimates and business plans. These public documents tell the world what ministries plan to spend and what they are going to do with their allocations.
Government intentions in these offerings are always fraught with political aspirations and spending that is usually higher than forecast. This provides the auditor more than enough grist to slam almost every ministry reviewed in a relentless and ongoing audit cycle.
In the case of ODSP, encased as it is in a bewildering network of brittle rules, it is impossible for both recipients and administrators alike to keep from constantly breaking them.
ODSP also suffers from the bad rap of supposedly unsustainable increases.
Yet here we have a program that increases organically from cuts in other disability programs (workers’ compensation, veterans’ programs, private sector disability plans) at the same time as its demographics resemble the growing and aging population that it mirrors. ODSP is also the safety net for all other disability income programs and when they tighten their belts. Higher ODSP caseloads are inevitable.
ODSP should be increasing in numbers and cost more than it has.
The true story is that the increases in ODSP costs actually represent a cut in overall service and benefits over the long haul.
What Lysyk should have done was look at the essential context of demographics, the hydraulics of program disinvestment and increases in both the diagnosis and prevalence of disabilities in the modern world. She could have noted a higher prevalence and improved diagnoses of spectrum disorder conditions, such as PTSD and autism.
She also could have told Ontarians that ODSP benefits have declined by approximately 1 per cent per year to inflation over the last 25 years.
The auditor general could have been critical of successive governments since the 1970s when it was Bill Davis’ policy under the GAINS (Guaranteed Annual Income System) to pay low income seniors and people with disabilities identical monthly sums.
She could have noted that today’s needy senior takes home over $1,700 per month in seniors benefits while ODSP maximizes at about $1,300. It would take a hefty 31 per cent hike in benefits for low income persons with disabilities to realize what their older counterparts receive today.
Nothing stops the auditor general from writing insightful and helpful reports, yet they choose to be limited to what’s called the law of the instrument (give a 5-year-old boy a hammer and everything he sees is a nail).
In this case, give a bean counter a spreadsheet and all she sees is more beans to count. None of this helps people with disabilities or the people who administer the program. It just makes life harder.
Maybe someday, some government will subject an auditor general to a “value for money” audit. But I suspect that may be a long way off as this officer of parliament, in particular, enjoys near oracle status in today’s modern government ecosystem.
John Stapleton is Innovations Fellow at the Metcalf Foundation and a former social assistance policy analyst with the Ontario government.