Have the poor fallen off the agenda?

TheStar,com – Opinion
Published On Mon Mar 15 2010.  By Carol Goar, Editorial Board

The bad omens keep coming.

The first was the federal Speech from the Throne on March 3. Although Stephen Harper’s government pledged not to “balance the books by cutting transfer payments for health care and education,” it did not mention the third purpose of federal transfers: social assistance.

Next came the federal budget on March 4. The message was identical. “We will not balance the budget by cutting transfer payments for health care or education.” Finance Minister Jim Flaherty did not rule out shoring up welfare – the provinces have the right to spend transfer payments as they wish – but he certainly made Ottawa’s preferences clear.

The biggest disappointment was Ontario’s Speech from the Throne on March 8. It didn’t contain a word about social assistance (also known as welfare). There was one passing reference to Premier Dalton McGuinty’s goal of reducing poverty by 25 per cent by 2013. But beyond that, low-income Ontarians were overlooked.

The final event in the cycle – the most important one – is the provincial budget on March 25. It will end the uncertainty about social assistance rates, affordable housing and subsidized childcare.

Most anti-poverty groups are holding their fire right now. The 25 in 5 Network, a province-wide coalition of social activists, issued a brief statement after the throne speech, urging McGuinty to keep his commitments and “be there for the vulnerable when help is needed most.”

A couple of tenant organizations expressed alarm. The Ontario Coalition for Better Childcare called on its members to blitz MPPs with letters stressing that subsidized childcare is essential to get struggling parents back on their feet. Overall, however, the reaction to the throne speech was remarkably muted.

McGuinty is hinting that better news will come next week. He talks about helping the vulnerable and upholding Ontario’s traditions of compassion and inclusiveness.

But judging from the premier’s track record, that could mean anything from promises to hold more consultations and set more targets to a checklist of everything the McGuinty government has already done – or will do – for low-income Ontarians this year.

It reduced provincial income tax rates in January to prepare for the introduction of the harmonized sales tax in July (as announced in last year’s budget). It will boost the monthly Ontario Child Benefit from $67 to $75 a month in July (as announced in 2007). And it is phasing in full-day kindergarten for 4-year-olds (as announced last October).

But that is a small part of the story.

Social assistance rates remain 60 per cent below Statistics Canada’s low-income cut-off, seven years after the Liberals took power. (An individual receives $585 per month – $364 for shelter and $221 for “basic needs.”)

The McGuinty government has yet to deliver its 10-year provincial housing strategy. Two housing ministers have come and gone. Even if the third, Jim Bradley, comes through, a strategy is no guarantee of funding for affordable housing.

Medical officers of health across the province have been calling since 2007 for a basic nutrition allowance so social assistance recipients can eat properly. They’ve been met with silence.

Full-day kindergarten for 4-year-olds will benefit low-income parents who have a child who qualifies. But this help could come at the expense of toddlers and 3-year-olds, whose childcare facilities may be squeezed out of elementary schools. Municipalities, too, are poised to reduce their subsidized childcare spaces for lack of funds.

As budget day approaches, anti-poverty groups aren’t expecting much. They know times are tough. They know education, not poverty reduction, is McGuinty’s priority. They know the poor are always told to wait when there is a deficit.

They’d like to trust the premier. But all the harbingers look bleak.

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