Hard times call for Ontarians to pull together

TheStar.com – Opinion – Hard times call for Ontarians to pull together
February 20, 2009.  Carol Goar

One of Dalton McGuinty’s favourite phrases is “shared responsibility.”

In his first term as premier, he applied it to everything from curbing gun violence to keeping seniors healthy and independent. But since his re-election 16 months ago, he has used it chiefly to explain, affirm and defend his pledge to reduce poverty.

“There will be part of the (upcoming provincial) budget that speaks to our shared responsibility to help those Ontarians who have been most affected by this recession,” he promised last week.

This is a welcome departure from the blame-the-victim language that prevailed at Queen’s Park for more than a decade.

But anti-poverty groups are withholding their applause.

The premier’s rhetoric is encouraging, but Ontario’s welfare system still operates on the assumption that recipients should be hounded and lectured about their responsibility to become self-supporting.

The government’s desire to tackle poverty seems genuine, but its actions have been modest and its plans are vague.

It would be nice to believe that Ontario is returning to its tradition of protecting the vulnerable and supporting the disadvantaged.

But the signals are mixed:

On the positive side, McGuinty kept his election promise to deliver a poverty-reduction plan with clear targets and timelines by the end of 2008.

On the negative side, Ontario’s strategy requires “a willing partner in the federal government and a growing economy.” Neither condition is likely to be fulfilled. Last month’s federal budget provided much less for low-income Ontarians than the $1.5 billion envisaged in the McGuinty plan. And no one is expecting the economy to grow anytime soon.

On the positive side, the province has pledged to review the more than 800 rules that strip welfare recipients of their privacy, their dignity and their hope of building a better life.

On the negative side, the McGuinty government has had 5 1/2 years to dismantle the punitive welfare regime left by former premier Mike Harris. All it has done is tinker. This suggests that real reform – if it comes at all – will be slow and piecemeal.

On the positive side, provincial Finance Minister Dwight Duncan had indicated a willingness to loosen the eligibility criteria for welfare. Under current regulations, applicants have to spend their savings and liquidate their assets (except their primary residence and a car worth less than $10,000) to qualify for benefits.

On the negative side, welfare rates are so low – $572 per month for an individual, $984 per month for a single parent with two children – that anyone who applies is going to live in abject poverty. There is no talk of raising welfare incomes.

On the positive side, public attitudes are changing. A decade ago, Ontarians would not have elected a premier who urged them to “show that we care about one another, we look out for one another and we want everyone moving forward together.”

On the negative side, strong vestiges of the Harris legacy persist. Just this month in Ottawa, federal Human Resources Minister Diane Finley, who represents an Ontario riding (Haldimand-Norfolk), rejected demands to allow all workers who pay employment insurance premiums to collect benefits, saying, “we do not want to make it lucrative for them to stay home and get paid for it.” Only a few voices were raised in protest.

In short, it is too soon to tell whether this recession will produce a sense of “shared responsibility.”

Widespread hardship could make Ontarians more aware of their own vulnerability or more determined to hang on to what they have. It could make the McGuinty government more resolute or more risk-averse.

Next month’s budget will provide an important clue. It will signal what kind of leader McGuinty is and what kind of society Ontario has become.

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