The Ontario Government’s pre-budget consultations are under way at Queen’s Park. The Federal budget is set to be released at the beginning of March (unless Stephen Harper decides for another spontaneous vacation), with the Ontario Budget set to be released in weeks that follow.

It will be the same tired old routine, with agencies, services, and organizations lining up to sing for their supper in front of Ontario’s all-party Standing Committee on Finance and Economic Affairs. The committee will be handed the message that the government ignored time and again — that Ontarians are suffering and cannot handle further cuts to programs or jobs, that their poverty reduction strategy is failing, and that this province desperately needs to see a raise in funding for social assistance, childcare, and education.

Poor and working-class people living in this province have a lot to worry about in this year’s budget. We are in an economic crisis and both the Federal and Provincial governments have already made thinly veiled threats of cuts to come to reduce bloated deficits.

With so much to lose, we cannot afford to put our faith in the pre-budget consultations process. Instead, we are making our submission below to the poor and working-class people in Ontario — the vast majority.

Dear Rest-of-Canada

Take it from Ontario, with Mr. Jim Flaherty at the helm of Canada’s economy we can be sure that some brutal times are ahead. As Ontario’s Finance Minister under the leadership of Premier Mike Harris, he was the man wielding the axe in Ontario’s Tory Regime in the 90s – slashing all services and attacking the public sector.

Dwight Duncan now fills Flaherty’s shoes in Ontario. What Flaherty and Harper have called “belt-tightening,” is what Ontario Minister of Finance Duncan calls “difficult choices ahead.”

Will it be Social Assistance? Will it be “Dalton Days?” Clearly, making cuts to the basic needs of poor and working people remains an option.

Then, the Ontario Provincial Auditor’s report was released on December 7, 2009. A section of it was dedicated to Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support Program, launching attacks on social assistance recipients from claims of massive overpayments to fraud.

Nobody is surprised when governments looks to blame poor people for financial woes — it’s the perfect distraction from the fact that the deficit was caused by tax cuts to the rich and bailouts for banks and big business.

The Auditor’s report fits perfectly within this “blame the poor” plan and this supposedly “external and independent review” has become the primary tool of the Provincial government to legitimize cuts to services in the name of “efficiency” and “fiscal responsibility.”

In 1995, Ontario Works was slashed by 21.6 per cent by Flaherty as provincial finance minister. The Common Sense Revolution in Ontario saw significant tax cuts for the rich while social programs and public services were being devastated.

In 2003, the Liberals were elected to power, promising an end to the poverty regime. Today, people in Ontario in many ways are worse off than 15 years ago. Social assistance rates have been raised by a total of 6 per cent since 2003. The government may say they have made positive changes, but today people on social assistance are living on rates that have been reduced by 40 per cent when you take in to account the cost of living increase. Six per cent is such a small increase that it does not even account for inflation, on, say, vegetables.

Around 700,000 people in Ontario live on Social Assistance, the vast majority children. The basic amount for a single adult living on social assistance is $572 per month (broken down to $356 for shelter and $216 for basic needs), for a single parent with one child it is $920 per month ($560 for shelter and $360 for basic needs). Disability income rates are only slightly higher, and ODSP is a difficult program to qualify for — gaining access usually requires appeal processes and long waiting periods.

In 2005, the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty launched the Raise the Rates campaign to demand a 40 per cent raise in Welfare and Disability rates and a living wage.

Not long after, people on Welfare and Disability became aware of the now well-known Special Diet supplement. The Special Diet supplement is extra money (up to $250 per month) that people are entitled to on top of their monthly cheque if a healthcare practitioner determines that this extra money is required to buy food for medical reasons.

Many health care providers were eager to sign people up for extra money to ensure their patients ate healthy food. Nobody living on welfare and disability can afford to eat properly and they risk developing serious health problems. Many health care providers argue that there should be nothing “special” about the special diet — everyone on welfare and disability needs this money.

The Special Diet became a phenomenon — word spreading in poor communities resulting in “Hunger Clinics” being held across the province, allowing many poor people in Ontario to put higher quality food on the table. So it was only a matter of time before the government targeted this vital program.

December’s Auditor’s report took aim at the Special Diet, noting that Special Diet spending in the Province had increased from $5 million in the 2002/03 fiscal year to $67 million in the 2008/09 fiscal.

This is a fact that the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty is proud of, highlighting the supplement forced the government to spend millions feeding poor people in Ontario.

But now, Special Diet allowance increases are an embarrassment to local and provincial governments. There are cries of “welfare fraud” made in order to justify steps that will likely be taken to ensure that poor people are denied access to the fund.

The Special Diet holds a central place within a welfare system where people are forced to apply for “extra” funding to cover basic necessities that are not covered by appallingly low OW and ODSP rates. People apply for the Special Diet allowance in the same way they apply for transportation money to access public transit, for Community Start-up to try to avoid evictions or move after having faced an eviction, and burial money for a family funeral.

The dramatic increase in people accessing the Special Diet is not an indication of fraud, it is an indication of a hunger problem and a looming health crisis in this province. It should raise alarm bells for the healthcare system that people living on Social Assistance in this Province are living with poor health as a direct result of poverty.

This is a fact that the government ignores at their own peril. They can either choose to pay the cost of providing proper income levels for everyone on OW and ODSP, or they can pay the higher human and financial cost of the inevitable healthcare bills that result from forcing people to live in poverty.

Neither the health nor general well being of poor people in Ontario is a line item in the upcoming budget. If anything, their health and well-bring is up on the chopping block.

It is no coincident that Ontario’s Minister of Community and Social Services, Madeleine Meilleur, is the co-chair of the Treasury Board Panel charged with “reducing the deficit.” Who better to determine how to best erode social services than the Minister in charge of providing them?

Why such little faith in the Poverty Reduction strategy?

At the time of publishing, the Province has issued a “memo” giving front-line OW and ODSP workers the authority to reassess “the legitimacy of any Special Diet claim.”

Workers with no medical training are being given the power to a) second guess and question the diagnoses of a medical practitioner, and b) to deny people access to the Special Diet on a totally unaccountable and arbitrary basis. Social Services workers are being asked by the Province to, play doctor by overriding medical decisions in order to deny peoples’ legitimate claims.

Using the Auditor’s Report as justification, this new provincial directive is laying the groundwork for eliminating the Special Diet without the government having to explicitly say that is what they are doing.

Although no cut to Ontario Works has been officially made on paper, thousands are already denied access the Special Diet, a pre-cursor to more brutal cuts to come. The Province is creating an atmosphere of criminalization by linking the Special Diet allowance to fraud. For those of us who lived on social assistance through the Harris days this atmosphere is all too familiar.

In Toronto, welfare is administered by Social Services , which is overseen by Janet Davis’ Committee on Community Development. City officials are cutting social assistance by denying access to the Special Diet and other programs. They are administering devastating cuts at a time when they should be standing up against the provincial government. The process for applying for all benefits — basic and “extra” — has become so riddled with suspicion and accusations of fraud, that qualifying is almost impossible.

We didn’t create this crisis

Many politicians and economists alike believe that staying the course of a neo-liberal model will keep their heads above water in this failing economy. Dwight Duncan, Ontario’s Minister of Finance, boasts that new corporate friendly measures “…brings our total corporate tax cuts over the next three years to more than $3 billion.” (Dwight Duncan, State of Ontario’s Economy, March 3, 2008.

Billions of dollars of public money has been poured in to the financial system through the form of bailouts and tax cuts. That is where the deficit comes from, not from “overspending” to create jobs and public services, and certainly not from “fraudulent welfare claims.” The government wants that money back and it is not the financial elite who will pay. The method of deficit reduction is clear: to privatize public holdings, and to cut public and social services.

For people on social assistance it will be a very serious crisis. Nothing will be provided for the needs of poor and working-class people unless we fight together.

The Ontario Coalition Against Poverty is renewing our commitment to the Raise the Rates campaign in demanding a dignified and liveable income for Unemployed people and working people across the province.

• We intend to mobilize local communities to take the action necessary to challenge and defeat the abuses they face at the hands of the social assistance system.

• We will act to defend the right of people to obtain the Special Diet and other benefits that are being held back.

• We will also work to bring together this locally based resistance into a general “Raise the Rates” movement that can take up the fight for decent income in this Province. This will be taken forward on April 15, 2010 with a major OCAP mobilization against the Liberal Government that will demand a 40 per cent increase in welfare and disability rates.

Governments intend to impose this crisis on us but, through our resistance, we must create for them a political crisis and fight for lives free of poverty.

Liisa Schofield and John Clarke are organizers with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty. OCAP can be reached at [email protected] or 1-416-925-6939.

Cathryn Atkinson

Cathryn Atkinson is the former News and Features Editor for rabble.ca. Her career spans more than 25 years in Canada and Britain, where she lived from 1988 to 2003. Cathryn has won five awards...