Recently, the Ontario government announced changes to the way in which social assistance will be administered in the province. What do these changes mean for Ontarians on social assistance? Are they an improvement on the status quo? And, how do the reforms stack up against the basic income pilot that the Ford Government cancelled earlier in 2018?

To better understand these questions, MLI Munk Senior Fellow Sean Speer joined TVO's The Agenda with Steve Paikin to discuss the new changes.

According to the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services, over 960,000 Ontarians are on social assistance. With a myriad of rules and complex conditions, the system is projected to cost $10.1 billion for taxpayers in 2018-19.

However, Speer argues that these numbers hide much more important facts.

"The catalyst for reform is not just the [patchwork nature of the system] or even the cost of these programs," Speer explains. "The real scandal here [are the issues of retention in the program], the failure to move people into employment..."

Of the nearly one million Ontarians who are on social assistance, only 1% re-enter the workforce each month, and 50% of those who re-enter the workforce return to social assistance. Of those who return to the program, 80% do so within the year.

"The principle of Ontario Works - of social assistance for able bodied people - ought to be temporary, ought to be transitory. And it ought to be a scandal that we have such high retention rates."

"We're not just failing taxpayers, we're failing those people [who are on social assistance]."

Speer also makes the case that returning to work is not just for financial reasons, but is also for other reasons, such as a sense of purpose, self-worth, dignity, and interaction with others.

"The non-financial benefits of work are just as important."

In terms of the announced changes, Speer believes that they are largely positive as they fundamentally recognize the importance of promoting employment.

"The directional changes that the Minister articulated last week - the extent to which it restores the principle that Ontario Works ought to be transitory, ought to be temporary, ought to be focused on supporting and promoting paid employment... it's terribly needed."