ODSP Cases on the Rise as Link Between Poverty and Mental Health Strengthens

By Chris Montanini,
The Londoner, January 11, 2017

The number of disabled Ontarians accessing the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) is on the rise and a large majority of the growing caseload is due to mental illness, according to data compiled by a pair of researchers at Kings University College in London.

For the past 18 months, social work professor Tracy Smith-Carrier and sociology professor Don Kerr have been combing through data from the Ministry of Community and Social Services that was previously unavailable to the public.

In collaboration with The London Poverty Research Centre at Kings and Western University PhD candidate Juyan Wang, Smith-Carrier and Kerr released a report in December highlighting a number of alarming trends buried in social assistance rates from the census metropolitan area of London and across Ontario.

Among the facts they’ve emphasized is a 65 per cent increase in the number of Ontarians on ODSP between 2003 and 2014, reaching a total of roughly 325,000. Only a small portion of that growth is due to population aging and the breakdown of physical health, according to the data. The largest factor about 64 per cent of the total growth of ODSP claims over that time frame is mental health disabilities such as depression and anxiety.

We have a lot of people moving towards retirement right now, so you’d think that would be an important part of it, Kerr said. But if we can estimate how important it is (about 20 per cent) of the increase is due to population aging, so it was surprising.

We were astonished by that, Smith-Carrier added. The number of people experiencing mental health issues is on the rise; that does seem to be consistent with the literature. But also I think poverty creates mental health issues.

There is a strong association between poor health and poverty but Smith-Carrier and Kerr suggest researchers have been hard pressed to find causality because of a chicken and egg problem. Does poor health and disability result in poverty or does poverty result in poor health and disability?

Either way, Smith-Carrier and Kerr point to the punishingly low levels of assistance vulnerable Ontarians are receiving as part of the problem. Ontario Works (OW) currently offers a single applicant $706 per month. ODSP is providing a single disabled Ontarian with $1,128 per month.

Both rates are well below the poverty line and, after adjusting for inflation, the report from Kings suggests Ontarians on social assistance are living on less today than they were in 1992.

Kerr added that the number of people on ODSP province-wide has eclipsed the number on OW. Hes interested in studying the number of OW cases that later wind up on ODSP, but in the meantime, there is plenty of information in the most recent report about the state of the provinces (and Londons) poorest people.

Here are a few more highlights:
•About 40,800 persons are on social assistance in the census metropolitan area (CMA) of London as of 2014, with 21,300 on OW and 19,500 on ODSP. Thats roughly one in 12 people residing in the London CMA (which includes St. Thomas, among others). About one in 15 Ontarians are on social assistance by comparison.
•Around 8.1 per cent of the London CMA lives on social assistance (OW or ODSP) as of 2014. This is significantly higher than the provincial average at 6.7 per cent.
•Over the last decade, the number of persons on OW in London has increased at a rate that is more than double the CMAs rate of population growth (18.2 per cent relative to only 8.6 per cent for population growth over the full 2003-2014 period).
•Over the same period, the number of persons on ODSP has increased at a rate that is more than seven times Londons rate of population growth (up 63.6 and 8.6 per cent respectively).
•The largest group of social assistance beneficiaries in London is preschoolers (ages 0-4). One in eight preschoolers are on social assistance (12.3 per cent). Among women aged 20-24, roughly one in 9 Londoners are on social assistance (10.9 per cent), with a large proportion sole parents with young children.
•London has the second highest percentage of people on OW across nine CMAs in Southwestern Ontario. Windsor has the highest.
•Including both OW and ODSP, the London CMA has the third highest social assistance caseload in Ontario, with only Windsor and St. Catherines-Niagara with more.

Mental health isn’t the only underlying issue likely having an impact on poverty in Ontario. Smith-Carrier and Kerr pointed out that preschoolers represent the largest demographic on social assistance in London, which could mean childcare has become inaccessible, forcing low-income parents to stay at home until their children are old enough to go to school.

The London economy, slower to recover from the 2008 recession than other places in the province, has also had a major impact on OW caseloads.

We’re just starting to get out of the hole, Kerr said. In fact, if you look numbers from the Canadian Labour Force Survey, there are fewer people employed today than during the height before the recession. The thing that alarms us about that is over the same period weve seen population growth at the same time.

Smith-Carrier said number crunching began following an agreement between the Ministry of Community and Social Services and Statistics Canada to make social assistance data more accessible. She said three other research proposals are underway to study related social assistance issues particularly focused on immigrants and young women.


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