All cuts aren’t created equal

TheStar.com – opinion/editorialopinion
Published On Fri Jul 29 2011.

Mayor Rob Ford, elected on a promise to not cut city services, claims he can’t balance the books unless we make massive program and service cuts.

But in all of the discussion of the budget, the mayor is failing to address one critical question: What kind of Toronto do we want to live in? Do we want to live in a city that’s a great place to live and work and raise healthy kids?

Controlling spending is important when there isn’t enough revenue coming in, but cuts come at a price. When that price is too high, we must be prepared to engage in a conversation about raising revenue and not just about controlling costs.

The private consultants may have identified opportunities to cut costs, but it was not in their mandate to consider their long-term impact. How can we make smart decisions if we don’t know how those decisions will affect us? Will the cuts harm our health and the health of our families?

The city, in a manufactured panic, is attempting to balance the books in two months, rather than the usual six, and isn’t leaving time for careful consideration of the impact. Rushing important decisions without sufficient information puts our health at risk, both today and tomorrow.

How will these cuts harm our health? Let’s look at the implications of a few of the proposed cuts:

1. Student nutrition

City grants of $3.8 million help fund 685 student nutrition programs that keep 132,246 kids across the city from going hungry and ensure they are able to learn and succeed in school.

Research shows that these programs result in improved academic performance, classroom atmosphere, attendance, and overall nutritional intake which help kids establish healthy eating habits that last throughout their lives.

The students who benefit most from these programs are from low-income families and they are the ones who will be forced to make the biggest sacrifices when funding is cut. While we will save a bit of money in the short term, the long-term costs will be huge as we sacrifice our kids’ health, their educations, and their futures.

2. Accessible community recreation

Access to parks, sports activities and recreation programs isn’t just fun and games: they are critical for good health. Common spaces benefit all segments of our city and create meeting places that benefit harmony and diversity, an essential part of community building.

Research shows that rates of childhood obesity are higher in lower income neighbourhoods and participation rates in organized sports are lower. These two facts are connected: poverty reduces people’s ability to access the things we need for good health.

User fees don’t impact us all equally. They are an inconvenience for some, but for others they cut off access to the programs and services that benefit their health. City-provided programs improve our health and reduce the burden on the health-care system and social supports. User fees make Torontonians — especially those with low to middle incomes — less active and more at risk of chronic health conditions.

3. Employment, literacy and settlement programs

Toronto public libraries are more than just stacks of books. They offer employment, language and settlement programs for newcomers. Our research in St. James Town found that many immigrants were unable to access health-care services due to language barriers. Being able to speak English in Toronto is important. Research shows that it’s difficult for newcomers who don’t speak English to find decent jobs, to access health care and to make their way in the city.

Research also shows that unemployment leads to poor health. Sacrificing employment, language, and settlement programs will put more people on social assistance, raising overall costs and reducing health.

4. AIDS prevention

AIDS is a disease that affects us all. AIDS prevention programs, especially for lower income and marginalized Torontonians, help to reduce the prevalence of AIDS. Cutting these programs will lead to an increase in preventable infections and increase demand on health services for years to come.

Not everyone will be forced to make sacrifices if city services are cut; we don’t all rely on them in the same way. The people who will make the greatest sacrifices are the ones who already have very little. Their health and their kids’ health is what will be sacrificed.

While these cuts may save money in the short term, we will all end up paying dearly for them down the road through increased costs to the health-care system, higher rates of unemployment, increased demand for welfare, EI, and shelter and increased crime.

Is this really the kind of city we want for ourselves and for our children? Before we make any sacrifices we must consider who we’re asking to sacrifice, and at what cost.

The health of our city and its residents are at stake.

Rick Blickstead is the CEO of the Wellesley Institute that focuses on community-based policy solutions to urban health issues.

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