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The following was originally presented as a speech to the Region of Waterloo's public input budget hearings, on behalf of the activist group the Alliance Against Poverty.
Chairman, Councillors, fellow citizens:
Two years ago, when you were a newly re-elected Council, and our Alliance Against Poverty was a relatively new community group, I spoke to you here about the Region's budget for 2011.
The Alliance Against Poverty, you'll recall, is a grassroots group that engages in political action for the eradication of poverty. We do not seek or accept any form of government funding.
At that time we urged you to give priority to improving the lives of the one-in-ten residents of Waterloo Region -- approximately 50,000 people -- who live below the poverty line. It was the year the province started uploading the cost of social assistance, which was a boon to this Region of approximately $10 million. We said to you that an obligation existed to use this new money for the needs of the poorest people -- such as supportive housing for example.
Well, today our faces are more stern. The same provincial government that gave with one hand has taken away with the other -- and you and we and every agency in town are feeling shocked and even betrayed.
I understand that the net loss to Waterloo Region will be about $3.5 million from the capping of the Discretionary Benefits, and about $2 million from the cancellation and restructuring of the Community Start-Up fund -- for a total of $5.5 million. A huge loss from services that were essential to the lives of people on social assistance. Not one of these benefits could afford to be cut -- they were less than adequate already.
You people and your staff are now wringing your hands, trying to decide: do we cut food hampers or dental care? How do we keep the number of homeless from going up if we can no longer provide last month's rent in advance so folks coming out of shelters can get a room or apartment? These problems should not have been dumped on municipalities, and you have a right to feel helpless and angry.
Now I refuse to parse these benefits, and say let's keep that one and get rid of this one and see where we can trim another. They are all necessary, and none of them should be cut. Whatever we do with our money, the people who lack basic necessities have got to come first.
But I'd like to suggest that we are not at all as helpless as we feel right now. You as a regional government are not helpless, and you don't have to go through this agonizing over detailed benefits. What you need to do is offer bold leadership.
You are not helpless politically. And you are not helpless financially.
You are not helpless politically:
Has this Region lodged any complaint with Minister Milloy and Premier McGuinty? I was glad to see in the paper the other day that Mayor Zehr and Berry Vrbanovic in Kitchener are spearheading a call by cities across Canada for federal funds for infrastructure. Good on them; it's long overdue. We can do the same with the province. The Region of Waterloo should be in the lead.
The city of Hamilton, the district of Nippissing, and the counties of Lambton and Chatham-Kent, for example, have all sent letters of protest to Ontario leaders. Why is Waterloo not even in the parade?
The people will support you, if you set the case before them. Especially at the Christmas season. What do you think would happen if 47 municipalities with one voice demanded that Ontario take back these unjust cuts, and if they all told their people plainly what's going on? What might happen?
Have you ever even passed a resolution calling on Ontario to raise the social assistance rates, so that so many discretionary benefits wouldn't be sorely needed in the first place? You are not helpless.
There's still time to convince Ontario to restore these two benefits. We shouldn't lie down in resignation. The people will respect you if you show some spine over something that's so clearly a just cause.
You are not helpless politically and you are not alone -- we are all here.
More than that, you are not even helpless financially:
Suppose we do have to adapt to the loss of the Community Start-Up and the slashing of the Discretionary Benefits.
The figures mentioned above seem huge: a loss of $3.5 million from the Discretionary Benefit and $2 million from the Community Start-Up -- for a total of $5.5 million.
Let's try looking at this another way. I believe the Region's total budget is in the neighbourhood of $1.2 billion a year? If we scale these numbers down to what's comprehensible to ordinary people, it's like saying: I have $1200 in the bank and somebody steals my wallet containing $5.50. I was planning to buy bread and milk on the way home with that $5.50. And the $1200 is all earmarked for bills. What would I do? Am I going to stop buying bread and milk? Of course not. I'm indignant about the money being taken, but I'll adjust something else to keep the essentials on the table. It's only a crisis if you think that all the other budget items are unyielding.
There must be other areas where a little can be saved. Two people around my table at the Opportunities Waterloo luncheon meeting yesterday said that needless road work had been done on their streets in the last few years. Are we holding up every expenditure to the light of the needs of the hungry and homeless? This has to become central to all of our thinking. Could some expenditures be spread over more years, for example, so that there's enough each year to replace the money for the poor that's been taken away?
I want to return now to the money that was saved when Ontario uploaded the cost of the disability program two years ago. The gain of apx $10 million was an ongoing saving, was it not? And most of it hasn't been spent yet has it? Just allocated for the Light Rail Transit project? It can be reallocated.
You must wish you had this money now. There was an implicit obligation to the people, to use it for a poverty-related purpose. If you took it away from the poor before, you can give it back to them now. What if the LRT had to be rolled out over five years instead of four? Would it be a disaster?
We wouldn't like it -- I wouldn't like it -- but it wouldn't be a disaster. But not taking care of the hungry and homeless -- that's a disaster.
We in the Alliance Against Poverty say, increase funding for social welfare in times of restraint. This would be bold and innovative. Maintain the existing programs and expand them to include bus passes and higher quality food hampers. Extend dental benefits to the working poor. Fly in the face of the austerity demon. You know why? Not only is the need greater during times of austerity, as we all know -- but taking care of the base supports all of society. It saves you on shelters, hospital beds, and policing, we know all this -- and it also improves the quality of the whole community. Businesses don't want to locate where there's a lot of homelessness and destitution. They want consumers who can buy, and people they can hire who have stable lives. Nothing destabilizes family life and mental health like poverty.
So invest in the poor -- it pays off. Call it the trickle-up theory. We've tried the trickle-down theory for 25 years, but food banks and church basements are only getting fuller. It's time for a bold new approach.
Don't be helpless and don't be resigned. You do have choices. You can be more bold politically and join other regions in challenging the province's policies. You can be more bold financially and make a firm commitment that the poor come first, because it helps everybody.
You can show the determination, the innovativeness, and the progressive values that Waterloo Region is known for. You can be the leaders we elected you to be.
Eleanor Grant is an activist with Alliance Against Poverty in Waterloo, ON.