In a report into her findings released on Wednesday, Irene Hamilton has recommended the Employment and Income Assistance Program make 68 separate changes to make the social-assistance system better.
"We have examined whether or not people are treated fairly by the program and concluded that because of regional differences, different interpretations of policy and different management styles, there exists the possibility that people in similar circumstances will be treated differently," she states in her report.
She also states that government welfare policies have not adapted to a more modern philosophy about welfare. Hamilton wants the government to investigate how often people receiving welfare have to use money meant for rent to pay for other things, like food.
The ministry of Family Services and Consumer Affairs runs Manitoba's social assistance program. Hamilton said about 300 people work in the department, province-wide.
'Room for improvement'Hamilton said the department co-operated fully with her investigation, which began after members from 12 community organizations complained about the welfare system in August 2008. The investigation wrapped up six months ago.
Hamilton said in a statement that the review looked at the system's treatment of clients from across a range of backgrounds, including the disabled.
A key issue, she suggests, is how quickly the system responds to the needs of people who require help.
"We have concluded that there is room for improvement at the intake and application stage," she said, adding that there are "better ways" for the program to communicate with clients.
A few specific recommendations include:
- That no Manitoban be denied the opportunity to apply for benefits due to not having an address.
- Documenting the process by which welfare rates are set and making that information public.
- Eliminating the practice of welfare investigators making home visits to clients.
- Documenting complaints in a database and detailing what was done to resolve them.
- Developing a clear statement of the system's philosophy and aligning department policy to be consistent with that philosophy.
The government last raised the shelter rates in early 2008 after a 15-year-long freeze.
A link to Hamilton's complete report can be found at the top right of this story.
Report slams social assistance program
THE province's goal of moving people off welfare and into the workforce is undermined by poorly communicated policies, overwhelming staff caseloads and a failure, in some instances, to provide such basic job-searching tools as a telephone.
Provincial ombudsman Irene Hamilton Wednesday released the first outside review of the province's social assistance programs since the early 1980s.
Her probe arose out of complaints from 12 community organizations, many of which have clients on Manitoba's Employment and Income Assistance (EIA) program.
According to Hamilton's report, very few caseworkers describe their workload as manageable, and many spoke of working in "crisis response mode."
Hamilton said there is "some uncertainty" about the role of case counsellors in a system evolving from one that writes cheques based on set criteria to one that helps participants find work.
In an interview, she said more needs to be done to determine the barriers to employment for individual clients and provide help to overcome them. She acknowledged the government has introduced a promising pilot program.
At times, EIA benefit rules mean recipients don't have the tools they need to find work, Hamilton said. So, "a person may not be able to have transportation to seek a job or a telephone to remain connected with job-seeking activity."
Hamilton said social assistance brochures should be written in plain language and Manitoba residents should not be denied the opportunity to apply for benefits because they lack addresses.
She was also troubled by inadequate definitions of what constitutes a common-law relationship, an issue that can affect assistance rates.
"I think what's important is that people in similar circumstances are treated the same way," she said. "Policies should be clear and they should be understandable."
Representatives of several social agencies whose complaints launched the ombudsman's study will comment on the report today at a 10 a.m. press conference.
Family and Consumer Affairs Minister Gord Mackintosh said the report shows the province needs to do a better job of communicating its initiatives and streamlining "some policies and administrative arrangements."
He said he would move swiftly to clarify rules defining common-law relationships, placing more emphasis on the length of cohabitation.
The EIA report is available at www.ombudsman.mb.ca.
The report didn't say "slammed" anywhere. I think this author is inserting his own opinions and biases into this article. The recommendations were thoughtful and based on interviews with those who administer the system.
Great article and I agree with the changes to the welfare system. It should be applied fairly and evenly to everyone.