TORONTO – Concerned groups in the Hamilton area descended on Queen’s Park Tuesday, demanding the Ontario government stop the “claw back” of the Ontario Child Benefit from social assistance recipients.

The Ontario Child Benefit (OCB) provides financial support for low income families, reaching more than one million children each month. In July 2009, maximum payments increased from $50 to almost $92 per month for each child.

But most of the OCB is clawed back from families on social assistance by reducing the Basic Needs portion of the parents’ benefits. Worst hit by the claw back are parents with one teenager, who now receive only $1 (one dollar) per month more than in 2008.

“What this means is a single parent like myself received what amounted to a $1 increase,” said Amy MacPherson, an Ontario Disability Support Plan recipient with a 13-year-old son. “My son has done nothing wrong and I didn’t choose to be disabled.”

MacPherson said she was a fully functioning member of society until a drunk driver put her in a coma and shattered her body from the waist up.

“I was left with nothing other than ODSP,” she said, at a pre-rally press conference.

That’s forced a lot of people on social assistance to rely on food banks, said Jonah Schein, a Civic Engagement Coordinator with The Stop Community Food Centre.

Schein and his colleagues from Put Food in the Budget, a group calling for the immediate introduction of a $100 monthly supplement to the basic needs allowance for all adults receiving social assistance, have met with over 40 MPP’s from across the province.

He said they all agree that social assistance rates aren’t enough to live with health and dignity.

“So if we want a real commitment in poverty reduction, then we’re going to need to see a real investment in social assistance benefits,” said Schein.

Under a mostly sunny morning, NDP MPP Paul Miller criticized the Liberals for giving $1.5 million per day to “Liberal friendly” e-Health consultants rather than helping poor people in Ontario.

“Mr. McGuinty and his Liberals have got their priorities wrong,” said Miller. “You start from the bottom and work your way to the top. You don’t give the money at the top and leave nothing at the bottom.”

He promised to make the Liberals answer for what they’re doing – in the next election.

“NDP, NDP, NDP,” chanted more than 60 parents, children, students and grandparents who traveled all the way from Hamilton in rented yellow school buses.

“You’re worse off today than you were under Mike Harris, said NDP MPP Michael Prue. “And the Liberals are proud of that. And they’re proud that they take the federal money that’s given to you and claw it back.”

NDP leader Andrea Horwath waved to the crowd from the steps of the legislature as she made her way down to meet with supporters.

“Stop clawing back money from people who need it the most in this province,” said Horwath. “We need the money to feed our kids. That’s the message and obviously the government didn’t get the message.”

Horwath congratulated Paul Miller and his staff for helping the Hamilton activists get to Queen’s Park, adding “It’s so important that this government actually sees the people that their policies affect – families like yours who are just trying to get by.”

She accused the Liberals of preferring to “watch families suffer and children go to school hungry unable to learn.”

“When will the McGuinty government put an end to its heartless benefit shell game?” asked the NDP leader during Tuesday’s question period, referring to the government’s reduction in the Basic Needs allowance.

“This government is very concerned about the well-being of children,” responded Liberal MPP Madeleine Meilleur. “That’s why we have done so much since we were elected to help children. In order to help the children, we have to help the parents, so that’s why we provided a 12 per cent increase in OW and ODSP benefits since we were elected.”

On the front lawn, Horwath said, “The answer did not acknowledge this government’s disgraceful performance in terms of social assistance and ODSP, particularly for families in this province.”

Josie D’Amico, a school teacher at St. Thomas Moore Catholic high school in Hamilton, said her students notice a difference when some students can’t come to school because they don’t have the bus fare.

“There was a family with two children who couldn’t afford two bus fares so the children came to school on alternative days,” said D’Amico, adding that teachers have become quasi social workers who started a food bank, a clothing bank and breakfast programs.

They even fundraise to help students pay for their medications.

One young student told D’Amico that she goes hungry “a little bit” every day.

“Nobody chooses to be poor,” said Peter Cassidy, a long time NDP supporter. “People are made poor by the rich, the powerful and the corporations.”

Ontario Works recipient Ursula Samuels, who has a 14-year-old son and often has to decide whether to pay the rent, buy food or pay the bills, admitted there were times when she didn’t even have a lunch to give her son to take to school.

“But we’re not going to give up,” said Samuels. “We’re going to fight until we get what we want.”

Click here to see photos from the rally.

John Bonnar

John Bonnar is an independent journalist producing print, photo, video and audio stories about social justice issues in and around Toronto.