Poor stuck in the middle of an ideological fight
By Kate Heartfield, Ottawa Citizen January 10, 2011
The long bureaucratic nightmare that is Ontario’s Special Diet Allowance for welfare recipients isn’t over yet, but there’s reason to hope.
The allowance is supposed to help people who receive social assistance and are coping with medical conditions that require them to buy more expensive food.
Just getting a sense of how the allowance works now, and what the problems with it are, requires reading several incredibly boring and confusing reports.
There’s a convoluted Ontario Human Rights Tribunal judgment. The provincial auditor weighed in last year. There’s a report from the Special Diets Expert Review Committee, which waxes on for 79 pages about such matters as the precise difference in cost per serving between gluten-free and non-gluten-free pasta.
All of that detail has been necessary to get the provincial government closer to a rational, fair system — but man oh man, this is one opaque area of public policy.
So imagine what it’s like to know that your ability to eat next week depends on this Byzantine system that seems to be constantly either changing or under threat of change. Imagine what it’s like to know that there are now new changes, and that every person who qualifies for the program now will have to reapply in 2011 — and that there might be further changes after that. “The changes to the special diet allowance have been disastrous from the beginning,” sighs Wendy Muckle, executive director of Ottawa Inner City Health.
The good news is that eventually, we might be able to have confidence that people who need extra money because of medical conditions are getting the amounts they really need. That won’t happen until at least June 2012, when Munir Sheikh — late of Statistics Canada — and Frances Lankin are supposed to complete their review of all social assistance programs in the province.
But to respond to the Human Rights Tribunal decision and the auditor’s concerns, the province had to act on the special-diet allowance before that review begins. It recently announced changes that will increase the amounts for certain conditions, and eliminate others from the eligibility list.
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