Ontario budget fails people living in poverty


Photo by the Vancouver Food Bank

I can support nearly all of yesterday’s budget delivered by Ontario’s Minister of Finance Dwight Duncan. That’s not enough though to be able to support the budget.

I expected a tough budget. By aggressively addressing the recession, the government made investments to keep Ontario working. But that spending combined with the effects of a high dollar have resulted in a large deficit that must be addressed.

I applaud the government for finding a way to do so without rolling back advances in education and health.

I was ready to fight tooth and nail for full day kindergarten when I learned the Drummond report would recommend ending it. I believe this program is a critical investment in our future and as a recent report shows enhances the literacy, numeracy and fine motor skills of early learners. I believe the program is also important because it helps parents living in poverty by providing care for their children and the chance to work or upgrade their skills or education. It also helps children living in poverty to break the cycle. As a result, it helps to reduce government costs affected by poverty including social services, health care, policing and prisons.

I am happy to see the long awaited expansion of Cambridge Memorial Hospital will go ahead. Waterloo Region’s health care improves when this expansion occurs.

I also greatly appreciate that the Ontario Child Benefit stayed intact. I can live with a delay in increasing it knowing that in 2009 its implementation was accelerated to help low income families deal with the recession.

A freeze on social assistance is unacceptable

In the days leading up to the budget because much of what I’ve listed above was already known, I took a partisan position that it could have been worse since the Liberal government did not take Mike Harris’ approach to deficit reduction. I did so because I appreciated the gains that were being preserved including the Ontario Child Benefit that I advocated for when working for the Daily Bread Food Bank. I also took some comfort that when the freeze was announced that it was to be for one year.

But I could not deny that a freeze in social assistance rates was effectively a cut in the buying power of people who were already struggling to make ends meet. I knew this decision meant that the struggle to pay the rent and eat became more difficult. I realized that more people would need to use food banks as a result. Being someone who is convinced that the elimination of food banks is realistic, I concluded that a freeze on social assistance is unacceptable.

I can not imagine how the Ontario NDP can support a budget that hurts our most vulnerable. I hope they make addressing this issue a key condition of their support. It’s an amendment I expect the government to accept.

I attended several rallies where Premier McGuinty told a story about taking walks with his many brothers and sisters and that it taught him about how no one gets left behind. He said the same applied to his Ontario. That approach applies in tough times as much if not more so than in good times so I expect to see this decision reversed. In fact, I would have preferred that the government managed at least a slight increase in social assistance to demonstrate that the deficit was not being fought on the backs of the people struggling with poverty.

Delay or scale back implementation of full day kindergarten

The government will want to know where to find the funds to avoid the freeze. I’m sure there are many options. I suggest delaying or scaling back the implementation of full day kindergarten. Yes, the very same program I was (and am) willing to fight for tooth and nail. By doing so, I am signalling that I am serious.

Full day kindergarten must continue. But it’s implementation can be frozen or at least scaled back. I don’t know if that frees up enough funds but I suspect it does or at least goes a long way to doing so. While vital, the program is expensive and there are schools that don’t have it yet because it is difficult to implement due to space limitations. Freezing or scaling back full day kindergarten means associated infrastructure costs are also delayed and perhaps avoided.

My understanding is that the schools that serve communities with the greatest need for support and services have full day kindergarten already. Children most in need of the benefits of the program have access to it. Yes, all the other families have a right to expect the same program and as soon as possible. But if we’re making decisions based on a desire to ensure no one is left behind, a delay or revised plan for introducing full day kindergarten is a compromise I’m prepared to make.

I hope the government agrees. If not,  I look for an alternative chosen that allows for an increase for social assistance that matches or exceeds the rate of inflation.

Social Assistance Review Commission recommendations coming

An important factor for why my initial reaction was different is because I have been looking forward to the recommendations of the Commission for the Review of Social Assistance in Ontario.

Here are some quotes from a recent video from the review’s commissioners.

We have come to the view that we need to transform the social assistance system. Small fixes will not be enough if we are to really help people on a path to a better life.

Frances Lankin

When it comes to the structure of social assistance benefits, we know we have a challenge in balancing the three objectives of adequacy, fairness between people receiving social assistance and low-income earners, and incentives to work.

Munir Sheikh

I’m expecting innovative solutions and an approach to social assistance designed for the future rather than one rooted in the past. Knowing that is coming and the difficult budget the province needed to deliver, at first I thought that the freeze on social assistance could be tolerated.

But I realized if I still worked for Daily Bread, I’d be concerned about the impact of this decision on the number of people using food banks and that I needed to speak out on any measure that increased the need to use them.

On the other hand, I still look for the review to revamp social assistance so that it is a true safety net when needed rather than how it currently operates which is more like a web that entangles people and doesn’t let them out.

I suggest that how the government responds to the commission will be the true test of its dedication to eliminate poverty. In the mean time, let’s ensure no one gets left behind.

Other views

I wrote this post in part because of  columns by the Waterloo Region Record’s Louise D’Amato and the Toronto Star’s Carol Goar. While I don’t agree with either of them 100%, they do make the case that this is an issue I can’t ignore.

Post Script – Mar. 29

I have some additional information that I would like to share to ensure that I have accurately described the big picture related to the province’s approach to dealing with people living in poverty:

  • the government made investments in only three key areas – health, education and children/social services
  • of those, children/social services increases the most
  • over the next three years, children/social services will grow faster than spending in any other area
I believe these are important points to consider in evaluating how the budget considers the needs of people living in poverty. I applaud these priorities and the action behind them. Unfortunately, they don’t address my concern that the buying power of people who are already struggling with feeding themselves and paying for a place to live is being reduced and food banks will become busier as a result.

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