Jan 9, 2004
TORONTO - A controversial lifetime ban on Ontario welfare recipients who cheat the system has been lifted a year after a coroner's inquest into the death of a pregnant woman, Kimberly Rogers, recommended an end to the practice.
The decision by the new Liberal government to repeal the harsh measure imposed by the former Conservative regime immediately drew praise from social activists.
"I'm very happy. Social assistance is income of last resort; it's what you turn to when there's nothing else," said Jacquie Chic, a director at the Income Security Legal Clinic in Toronto.
"If you take that away, essentially you're deeming someone to be in a position where they can't get resources from anywhere."
The government's decision was actually made just before Christmas but will be formally enacted Saturday.
Social Services Minister Sandra Pupatello said the ban had been counterproductive. That's because welfare officials were often loathe to act against suspected fraud given the "punitive" consequences.
"We still have a zero-tolerance policy," Ms. Pupatello said in an interview from Windsor, Ont.
"Every single suspected fraud case must move forward, the police must be called."
Any overpayments will be docked from recipients' welfare cheques, she said.
In August 2001, 40-year-old Kimberly Rogers died in her apartment in Sudbury, Ont., while under house arrest for a conviction for welfare fraud.
Ms. Rogers, who was eight months pregnant, had been living on social assistance while receiving a student loan.
When she died, she'd received $13,000 in welfare payments that she wasn't entitled to.
A coroner's inquest ruled her death a suicide and made 14 recommendations, among them an end to lifetime bans on social assistance and an increase in welfare rates.
Welfare advocates had blasted the ban as cruel.
Critics said fraud has never been a huge problem in the welfare system, accounting for just a tiny fraction of the money spent.
During the election, Premier Daulton McGuinty called the zero-tolerance policy "regressive and not in keeping with a modern society."
He also promised to raise welfare rates, which the Tories cut 23 per cent in 1995.
Given the state of the province's books, it's not clear when that will happen but it won't be before the spring budget, Ms. Pupatello said.
"We're going to move as quickly as we can," she said.
"The rates aren't in keeping with what (recipients') needs are."
Currently, a single mother with one child receives $957 a month - an amount that leaves such families close to destitute, critics said.
"We need to see all of those (inquest) recommendations implemented, especially the recommendation regarding the increase in the rates," said Ms. Chic.
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