Here’s $5.92 — make it last a month

TheStar.com – opinion/editorialopinion
Published On Tue Apr 05 2011.   By Carol Goar, Editorial Board

According to Finance Minister Dwight Duncan, the cost of living will rise by 2.3 per cent in Ontario. Welfare rates will increase by 1 per cent.

That means an individual who is now living on $592 a month — $368 for shelter, $224 for everything else — will get $597.92, starting in November. That is 61 per cent below the poverty line set by the National Council of Welfare.

A single mother raising a child will get an additional $10.14 a month, bringing her welfare cheque up to $1,024. That falls 45 per cent below the poverty line.

And this is a province with an official poverty reduction plan; with a premier who challenged Ontarians in his last election campaign to “show that we care about one another, we look out for one another and we want everyone moving forward together”; with a finance minister who said last month, after receiving 1,110 “Put Food in the Budget” Valentine cards: “We remain committed to our ambitious poverty reduction strategy with a target of reducing child poverty by 25 per cent over five years.”

There wasn’t a cent in last week’s budget for food, or housing for that matter. The province’s 2011 fiscal plan guarantees that the 850,000 Ontarians who depend on social assistance — the poorest people in the province — will fall further behind this year.

Anti-poverty activists took what little comfort they could from the threadbare document.

It proposed replacing three quarterly tax credits — the Ontario sales tax credit, the Ontario energy and property tax credit and the northern energy credit — with a single monthly benefit designed to help low-income families manage their bills. And it contained help for children with mental health problems, a $76-million investment in better programs and services.

They had hoped for more — a food supplement, a shelter allowance, job training — but they dared not criticize the Liberal government too harshly, fearing worse if the Conservatives are elected this fall.

It would be easy to blame Premier Dalton McGuinty for turning his back on the poor. But political leaders reflect public opinion, especially in an election year.

The premier seems to have read the mood of Ontarians correctly. Public reaction was muted but generally positive. Editorial comment was predominantly favourable. The voluntary sector was disappointed, but resigned.

What happened? How did a province that resolved four years ago to tackle poverty lose its will?

The recession was obviously a factor. It exposed the vulnerability of middle-class families. Many had been living paycheque to paycheque. When the economy stalled, they turned inward, focusing on their own debts, their taxes, their electricity bills and their meagre pensions. But that isn’t the whole explanation.

After the recession, fiscal discipline leapt to the top of the political agenda. That gave the edge to cost-cutters such as Tim Hudak and Rob Ford. It forced middle-of-the road politicians such as McGuinty to tack right or risk losing public support.

The media, sensing that poverty reduction was a spent force, stopped writing about it, asking about it, thinking about it.

The anti-poverty movement was stymied. Having persuaded McGuinty to adopt targets and timelines rather than raise welfare rates, it was trapped when the premier brought in a poverty reduction plan with ambitious targets, but failed to act on it. The coalition’s leaders had misplaced their trust, but were loath to admit it.

The churches and charities, faced with rising need and falling donations, were too overwhelmed to speak out. They didn’t know where to turn.

Clearly not to Queen’s Park. But sadly not to the people of Ontario.

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