A flurry of announcements but little content

TheStar.com – Opinion/EditorialOpinion
Published On Mon Dec 06 2010.   By Carol Goar Editorial Board

Poverty reduction plans poured out of Queen’s Park so fast last week it was hard to keep up with the paper flow.

But once all the packaging had been stripped away and the self-congratulatory rhetoric sifted out, there wasn’t much left. Welfare rates were still below the poverty line. Healthy food was still out of reach. Affordable housing was still a dream.

The 1.6 million Ontarians living in poverty had to settle for an 18-month study of social assistance, a slight loosening of the rent rules for subsidized housing and an extensive list of the good things Premier Dalton McGuinty had done for them.

The week began with the release of the government’s long-awaited affordable housing strategy. Three successive Liberal housing ministers promised a long-term plan and produced nothing. The fourth, Rick Bartolucci, finally delivered a blueprint entitled Building Foundations: Building Futures.

But nowhere in the 17-page document was there a pledge to build social housing.

All the minister offered the 142,000 low-income Ontarians on the waiting list for a rent-geared-to-income apartment was a commitment to loosen the rent-collection rules.

A second disappointment was that Bartolucci did not respond to entreaties for a housing benefit that would narrow the gap between the rent private landlords charge and the amount low-income Ontarians can afford. The minister merely said he would consider the idea.

“Despite significant global economic challenges, we have not removed a single penny of the funds earmarked for housing,” Bartolucci declared proudly. “The McGuinty government understands that affordable housing opens doors to a better future.”

The next announcement came from Community and Social Services Minister Madeleine Meilleur. After two years of delays and excuses, she finally launched the social assistance review promised in the government’s poverty-reduction strategy.

The 18-month evaluation of Ontario’s welfare system will be led by Frances Lankin, outgoing president of the United Way, and Munir Sheikh, Canada’s former chief statistician. Both are knowledgeable and respected. No doubt their report will be credible and their recommendations will carry weight.

But it isn’t due until June of 2012. That will spare the Liberals from defending their punitive treatment of the poor in next fall’s election.

In the meantime, the government will restrict its $250 special diet allowance to welfare recipients with a medically verified need for extra food money. Those with ineligible aliments (such as cardiovascular disease and impaired glucose tolerance) or hungry kids or no cash left when the rent is paid will be cut off.

“Our ultimate goal is to empower low-income Ontarians, including social assistance recipients, to break out poverty,” Meilleur insisted.

The following day, Children and Youth Services Minister Laurel Broten released Breaking the Cycle, the government’s second annual progress report on its poverty reduction strategy.

The 28-page booklet was chock-full of accomplishments, many of which had little to do with poverty reduction. The minister highlighted everything from the harmonized sales tax to the incorporation of not-for-profit agencies.

There were three genuine improvements in the year-end roundup:

In July, the government raised the Ontario Child Benefit by $8 a month.

In September, it rolled out its full-day kindergarten program, giving 35,000 preschoolers a double boost: early learning and a better chance of having an employed parent.

And in October, it launched its long-promised Healthy Smiles program, which provides free dental checkups and teeth cleaning to low-income children.

“We will continue to reduce barriers, streamline our social services and develop strong, integrated and supportive communities,” Broten said.

By week’s end, it was clear that, for all the paper his government had churned out and all the announcements his ministers had made, McGuinty had very little to say about reducing poverty.

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