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Is social assistance a 'poverty pariah'?

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An article in the current edition of NOW Magazine looks at social assistance in Ontario. The article is aptly entitled "Poverty pariah," in light of how apparently unpopular Ontario's welfare system has become over the past 20 years.

As can be seen at the National Council of Welfare's Interactive Welfare Incomes Map, a single adult on welfare in Ontario receives $7,501 per year. In real terms, this benefit level is roughly 35% lower now than it was in the mid-1990s.

I was struck by many examples provided in the article of how politically unpopular some advocates believe it to be to even broach the topic of substantially increasing benefit levels.

Several interesting points are raised in the article, including the following:

Inside or outside? John Stapleton, one of Canada's foremost experts on social assistance, is quoted in the article as stating that social assistance "is a bad brand." He suggests that, in part for political reasons, it would be more pragmatic to reduce poverty "outside of social assistance."

Intentional or not? Some believe that the McGuinty government has intentionally "crafted" the recently-announced review of the social assistance so that the final report is released well after this fall's provincial election. Those who make this argument believe that voters would not be impressed if the Liberals were seen to be improving the lives of social assistance recipients.

Through the backdoor? The Daily Bread Food Bank is advocating in favour of a $103/month housing benefit "for low-income tenants via the tax system." Presumably, "housing assistance" is an easier sell than "living assistance." Likewise, policy delivered through Canada Revenue Agency, it would seem, has an air of thrift and sensibility to it, more so than policy that involves "spending."

Food. Some activists are trying to sell the provincial government on the Put Food In The Budget campaign, "which seeks to increase the monthly food portion of the social assistance cheque by $100." Again, it seems that some believe it's easier to sell voters on the need for low-income individuals to "eat" than it is for them to "live."

In reference to the Put Food In The Budget campaign, NDP Member of Provincial Parliament Michael Prue is quoted as saying: "I have asked hundreds of questions in the last 10 years on this topic [at Queen's Park] and have never once been quoted in the newspaper. Nobody has been interested. The NDP is standing back and asking, 'Do we run on a platform when there is no public interest?"

I'm struck by what appears to be deep-seated pessimism on this important public policy issue. Even serious policy wonks are bending over backwards to conceal their proposals with smoke and mirrors, lest anyone realize that they're advocating for a very low-income individual to live on more than $7,501 a year.

When did it become 'common sense' for swing voters to believe that there is a job for every resident of Ontario? And when did it become acceptable to believe that $592/month is a sufficient amount of money to live on in Ontario?

Lest blog readers be left with the impression that there is no reason to hope that important gains can be made on the poverty-reduction front, I'll offer two.

First, the Ontario government's Poverty Reduction Strategy appears to have made a small dent in the child poverty rate, even during the recent recession. For more on that point, see this recent piece in the Toronto Star.

Second, as Jim Stanford points out in this March 2010 opinion piece, very significant gains have been made over the past four years in Ontario on the minimum wage front.

Four years ago, I would not have predicted either of these outcomes.

This article was first posted on The Progressive Economics Forum.

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