Boost welfare rates, advocates urge
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Posted April 9, 2012. By Luke Hendry, The Intelligencer
Unions and anti-poverty advocates are pushing for Ontario’s social assistance benefits to be increased by more than half.
Advocates are holding press conferences across the province in a bid to stop the Liberal minority government’s proposed changes to benefits in the latest budget.
They say Ontarians on social assistance are already suffering and the changes, if approved, would in effect be a reduction in benefits.
“It’s a horrible budget for working people,” said Patti Encinas, vice-president of the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions and a Hamilton-based health care worker with the Canadian Union of Public Employees.
Encinas said the changes would have a trivial impact — 0.072 per cent — on Ontario’s finances, but worsen the lives of the poor dramatically.
“That’s like robbing your kid’s piggy bank to make a mortgage payment,” said Encinas.
Instead, the groups are calling for benefits to be increased by at least 55 per cent. And though that may sound like a lot, advocates at a press conference Wednesday at the Belleville Public Library said it can be done merely by rolling back corporate taxes to the previous rate of 14 per cent.
Liisa Schofield, an organizer with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, said former Progressive Conservative premier Mike Harris cut welfare rates by 21.6 per cent in 1995. Increasing them now by 55 per cent would merely compensate for that and adjust for inflation, she said.
Schofield said the base rate for welfare in Ontario is $599 per month.
“This is an economic crisis that poor people did not create,” Schofield said. “Nobody can survive on $599 a month.”
Schofield and others said boosting rates would be an investment because increased benefits would mean healthier people, reducing the need for future health spending.
They also said all parties must be prepared to address the issue.
“The number-one determinant of health is your income,” said Encinas. “People who don’t have enough money to live on are far sicker.”
Schofield said the proposed budget, coupled with reductions to other social programs, have both human and economic impacts.
“These cuts don’t just mean numbers to us; they mean people’s lives. It means people’s health. It means that in the long term the government is going to pay more in terms of the health of poor people than they would if they raised the rates.”
Alexandra Bell is a local advocate who serves on the board of the Community Health Centre of Belleville and Quinte West and works with other social organizations.
She said people receiving insufficient help may seek odd jobs only to claim the income and have benefits clawed back. They may also use food banks and have difficulty eating a healthy diet, especially given rising food costs, she said.
Bell said the desperation caused by being on welfare can cause people to take the first available job. If they aren’t well-suited to that job, she said, they may end up back on welfare.
She said she struggled during her eight months on social assistance and it makes a person reliant upon the system instead of being productive.
“Not only is your bank account low, but your morale is low,” she said.
“There’s a huge segment of our population that we’re not allowing to raise themselves to their potential,” Bell said.
“All it’s going to do is create a cycle where you’re paying more money into health care; you’re paying more into educational services because these people are not healthy or well.
“And now they’re having to access more programs and services to get themselves better as opposed to hitting at the root,” said Bell.
“Give them something that gives them dignity … so that they can live and be functioning members of our community — because that is what they want,” she said.
Advocates are planning a series of public meetings on the issue for late spring or early summer.
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