This fall, our federal politicians may lead us into an election fought on the issue of Employment Insurance benefits. But when it comes to the other income security programs most important to Ontarians, we are still looking for someone to lead us into battle.
Despite the provincial government’s promise to reduce poverty in Ontario, there is a deafening silence from our leaders when it comes to addressing the chronic inadequacy of Ontario Works and Ontario Disability Support programs -- the income security programs of last resort for vulnerable Ontarians.
The current economic crisis has exposed the failures of the market to provide stability and social security. As more and more people lose their jobs, and as market analysts predict the likelihood of a “jobless recovery,” it’s time we addressed the condition of our social safety net in light of the actual cost of living in Ontario.
For too many people who are without paid work and living on social assistance, keeping up with monthly expenses costs them their health and dignity. A recent study found that social assistance recipients had higher rates of poor health and chronic conditions on 38 of 39 measures compared to the non-poor.
Back in 1966, when Canadian Assistance Plan (CAP) was established and the federal government shared the cost of welfare programs with the provinces, social assistance rates were based on specific necessities like food, clothing, shelter as well as transportation and other personal care items. But in 1995, CAP was dismantled, and the provinces were left to determine their own social assistance rates. In Ontario, the government of Mike Harris used this deregulation as an opportunity to push forward their neo-liberal agenda to discipline workers and cut welfare benefits by 22 per cent.
Fast-forward 14 years and there is still no clear criteria for setting social assistance rates in Ontario. We are now two years into the second term of the McGuinty Government -- a government with an avowed commitment to combating poverty in the province -- yet little has been done either to reverse the Harris cuts or to establish a benchmark which ensures that Ontarians on social assistance are able to live in health and dignity.
Food banks around the province are stretched to the limit, unable to bridge the gap between people’s income and the real costs of basic necessities in Ontario. In an effort to raise awareness about this widening gap, The Stop Community Food Centre in Toronto has launched a new website called “Do the Math.”
The online survey asks people to imagine themselves in the shoes of a person on social assistance and to create a budget of what they think are the necessary items to live each month. Are items like bus fare, soap, internet access, or pet food necessary for people to live with health and dignity? If so, what do these things cost? How much is a reasonable amount to spend on rent and food?
At the end of the survey, the website tallies the users’ budget results and compares them to the monthly amounts actually received by people on Ontario Works and Ontario Disability benefits. An online portal enables users to send a message to the government of Ontario demanding action.
The website is helping to build support for the campaign to “Put Food in the Budget” -- a campaign launched by The Stop last February in partnership with the Social Planning Network of Ontario and the Association of Local Public Health Agencies. This coalition is asking for an additional $100 each month as a first step in addressing the chronic food insecurity and poor health of people on social assistance in Ontario.
Do the Math is a public awareness tool, but is also aimed at getting policymakers to do the math, and to put the question of social assistance adequacy within the framework of the poverty reduction promised by the Ontario Government.
Please go on line and do the math yourself.
Jonah Schein is the Civic Engagement Coordinator of The Stop Community Food Centre. Located in Toronto's Davenport West neighbourhood, The Stop Community Food Centre works to increase people's access to healthy food in a manner that maintains dignity, builds community and challenges inequality. To get involved with the campaign to "Put Food in the Budget", please send an email to civicengagement[at]thestop[dot]org.
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