One of the depressing aspects of the last few decades is the ease with which seemingly normal people walk obliviously past the aching pools of humanity spread out on our sidewalks.

At what point will people start looking up from their iPhones — at least momentarily — and think: Something must be done.

That moment should have come with the recent axing of Ontario’s “special diet allowance,” in which Dalton McGuinty’s government literally took food out of the mouths of hungry people, in the name of deficit reduction.

The elimination of the allowance in the recent provincial budget is really just the continuation of the assault on the incomes of the very poorest citizens that began with former premier Mike Harris’s 22 per cent cut in provincial welfare rates in 1995.

Despite a softer, more kindly demeanour, McGuinty has simply fine-tuned the cutback strategy, leaving today’s poor actually worse off than they were in the dark days of Harris.

This 15-year-long assault on the poor is now being ramped up as governments struggle with huge deficits caused by Wall Street’s reckless bash and the resulting global recession.

With bankers and hedge fund managers managing to slither off the hook, who can be made to bear the brunt of the restraint — perhaps the hungry?

The government insists the poor were taking advantage of the special diet program, managing to get sympathetic doctors to sign the required forms, allowing them to collect up to $250 a month for food. As a result, the cost of the program had risen to a costly $200 million a year, much higher than expected.

Of course, it’s not surprising that the poor turned out to be hungrier than anticipated, since, after inflation, welfare benefits today only have 55 per cent of the buying power they had in 1993.

The poor, thinking outside the box, had come up with an innovative way to protect themselves from the assault unleashed on them by the neo-conservative revolution, which has involved a massive transfer of wealth to the richest segments of society over the past three decades.

The increasing deprivation of the poor has been a key part of this revolution — and is absolutely unnecessary, as is well demonstrated in a powerful new film, Poor No More, which premiered in Toronto last week.

Among other things, the film by David Langille tells the story of an LCBO employee who for 12 years has been held to part-time status so that the LCBO can deny her the pay and benefits of a full-time worker. When she develops breast cancer, she goes to her chemotherapy treatments on her breaks since she has no sick benefits.

There’s absolutely no need for the LCBO to be so stingy; it boasts a profit margin of 48 per cent. But even though it’s a government agency, it has adopted the business world’s neo-conservative ideology — which, stripped of its fine rhetoric, boils down to rewarding those at the top and squeezing those at the bottom.

This is exactly what the McGuinty government is doing in eliminating the special diet. It could, for instance, have saved roughly the same amount of money by instead eliminating all the special tax subsidies that businesses and individuals enjoy when they write off the costs of meals and entertainment, notes Osgoode Hall tax professor Neil Brooks.

But then why cut subsidies for businessmen enjoying lavish lunches when you can raid the hampers and bread baskets of the truly poor.

Linda McQuaig

Journalist and best-selling author Linda McQuaig has developed a reputation for challenging the establishment. As a reporter for The Globe and Mail, she won a National Newspaper Award in 1989...