There is generally little focus in mainstream media on social assistance rates. Last week, Carol Goar took on the issues in an editorial entitled "Queen's Park offers crumbs to Ontario's poor". The article brought attention to the issue of social assistance rates, but it misses some major points on the fight to raise welfare and disability rates in Ontario. As Marian Kramer of the National Welfare Rights Organization in the U.S would say, "the media covers the plight but not the fight of the poor." So let us fill in the blanks.
Assistance rates 55 per cent lower than in 1994
On Dec. 1 social assistance rates will increase by an insulting one per cent. This increase is well below the rate of inflation which is estimated at three per cent this year. With inflation factored in, what McGuinty calls a one per cent raise, is, in reality a two per cent cut. This cut is a loss of real income for the poor, which, when coupled with the major cut to the Special Diet Program, means a dramatic deepening of poverty in 2012 and beyond.
To appreciate how wretched this increase is, you only have to look at what people will actually be receiving. A single person on Ontario Works goes from $592 a month to $599 -- if they qualify for the maximum payment. These low rates are the result of Harris cuts to welfare and McGuinty's failure to reverse those cuts. With inflation and cost of living factored in, social assistance rates are currently 55 per cent lower than they were in 1994. Harris cut rates by 21.6 per cent, and since the Liberals took power in 2003, their refusal to adequately increase rates has resulted in the loss of real income by a staggering 23.1 per cent. (Figure provided by John Stapleton.) People are considerably poorer under McGuinty than they were when the Tories left office.
Harris was proud of his attacks on poor people, which he carried out openly and blatantly. McGuinty has made almost as great a contribution to impoverishing people as Harris did, but you wouldn't know it from listening to his rhetoric. McGuinty's government actually passed into law a "Poverty Reduction Act" that supposedly compels Ontario governments to set and meet targets to reduce poverty in the province. Poor people in Ontario know that this legislation is completely meaningless and has resulted in no improvements to their quality of life. Ironically, if this act was enforced with the same rigor and severe penalties as laws designed to criminalize homeless people like the Safe Streets Act, the Ontario government would have to hold its cabinet meetings in a jail cell. When it comes to "poverty reduction" in Ontario, the lawmakers are the lawbreakers.
Poor people are fighting back
In her editorial, Goar asserts that the poor in Ontario are suffering silently because everyone sees assistance rates as a lost cause. Goar is right when she says that if the poor suffer in silence, that suffering can continue indefinitely. But we reject her claim that we are silent and that this is a lost cause. Poor people have been, and will continue to, fight back for decent incomes in this province. In 2005, the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty launched the Raise the Rates campaign to demand a living wage -- a full reversal of the Harris cuts and a raise in Welfare and Disability to where people can live with health and dignity.
In addition to Raise the Rates, OCAP has long been fighting to help ensure that people on assistance receive the full amount to which they are entitled. In 2006, OCAP and health provider allies, began to hold "Hunger Clinics" to sign people up to a benefit known as the Special Diet Allowance. This benefit provided up to an additional $250 per person to recipients who, for health reasons, needed extra money for food. Through these "Hunger Clinics," many poor people in Ontario gained access to desperately needed resources and were able to put food on the table using the Special Diet money. Over the time period from 2005 - 2008, this benefit was accessed en masse with thousands of individuals and families pouring out to clinics including one that was held on the lawn of Queen's Park.
At every turn, the Liberals tried to limit access to the benefit through Harris-style criminalization and accusations of "fraud" of both recipients and health providers like Dr. Roland Wong. Despite the attacks, the Special Diet spending in the Province increased from $5 million in the 2002/03 fiscal year, to $67 million in the 2008/09 fiscal. See the auditor's report here. That is millions of dollars that poor people won back from the government that has impoverished people on assistance for years. The funds helped people pay the rent and put food on the table. Not content to allow poor people any dignity, the McGuinty government once and for all cut the program to a bare minimum in April 2011.
The fight continues
Over the past six years, the Raise the Rates Campaign has continued to grow and to gain momentum. In 2010, the Canadian Union of Public Employees Ontario voted at their convention to support and join the Raise the Rates Campaign. They have been actively involved in pushing this campaign forward. Recently, the campaign has been endorsed by the Ontario Nurses Association and the Canadian Union of Postal Workers as well as many community and health organizations. In November 2011, the Ontario Federation of Labour also adopted Raise the Rates as part of their anti-austerity fight-back.
OCAP has continued the work of defending individual cases, of running countless workshops and events, building relationships with allies, popular education, provincial solidarity BBQs, videos and conferences, organizing demonstrations, delegations, creative actions and occupations. This is how a movement for social change is built -- the slow and hard work of organizing in-between defined upsurges. We are well aware that our demands will not be brought forward or won by Liberal appointed commissions or charity model agencies.
The deepening of poverty this year is taking place as part of the growing tide of austerity that people across Canada and the whole world are now confronting. In Toronto, Rob Ford and his allies on city council are introducing brutal cutbacks. McGuinty, for his part, has brought in former TD Bank economist, Don Drummond, to advise him as he develops a blueprint for austerity measures that will make Mike Harris look timid by comparison. In Ottawa, the Harper government is preparing its own contribution to dismantling programs, building up prisons and criminalization, and driving vast numbers into poverty.
The austerity agenda will not be stopped without a massive, powerful and determined common front of resistance. This month's sick joke of a one per cent increase for those living in conditions of severe poverty should show the need for that resistance and fill us with a resolve to build it.
What you can do to join and support the Raise the Rates campaign:
1) Endorse the Raise the Rates Campaign:
Take this to your organization and officially sign-on to the Raise the Rates Campaign! Contact us to add your name as an endorsing organization: / 416-925-6939.
2) Join the Movement:
- Invite the Raise the Rates Committee to come speak to your organization, union local or centre;
' Host a film screening: if your organization or union local would like to show the "Raise the Rates and Special Diet" video, get in touch and we would be happy to set up a screening with speakers from the campaign. Contact:
- Start a "Raise the Rates" committee in your area: let's build this work beyond the next demonstration and in to a movement that is unstoppable!
What is the Raise the Rates campaign?
1) Reverse the Cuts, Raise the Rates!
We demand an immediate increase in OW and ODSP rates to bring them back to pre-Harris levels. 55 per cent NOW -- raise the rates to where people can live with health and dignity!
We demand the minimum wage freeze be lifted immediately and that minimum wage be increased to a living wage for everyone in Ontario.
2) Restore the Special Diet!
We demand the full restoration of the Special Diet to a benefit of up to $250 for food and complete reversal of all intrusive measures.
Raise the Rates!
John Clarke and Liisa Schofield are organizers with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty.
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