Increase social assistance to put food in the budget

TheStar.com – Opinion – Increase social assistance to put food in the budget: Low assistance rates are not only an issue of injustice, they’re creating a health crisis
October 12, 2009.   Nick Saul Executive director of The Stop Community Food Centre
Janet Gasparini Chair of the Social Planning Network of Ontario

Thanksgiving is a time to think about food. For many of us, this means planning a holiday feast with our families and celebrating an abundant harvest. But Thanksgiving also marks the beginning of the season of food drives, the perennial call to “feed the hungry” over the winter holiday season.

We need something better this year than a good crop of canned tuna and peanut butter.

Ontario is reeling from the impacts of this recession; thousands of people in this province are unemployed and face a gloomy Thanksgiving. Some of these recently unemployed are joining people who already live on Ontario’s social assistance programs and are forced to rely on food banks each month. This year, many more people will eat Thanksgiving dinner in a soup kitchen or a local church.

But the recent spike in unemployment caused by the global recession is only one part of the story for Ontario’s food banks. Since the massive defunding of social assistance programs in the mid-’90s, there has been a never-ending food drive in this province. Social assistance rates were slashed by 22 per cent in 1995 by the Harris government. Inflation has increased 30 per cent since 1995, but little has been done by the Ontario government to restore benefits, and as a result, food bank use in Toronto has increased nearly 100 per cent over that time period.

Woefully inadequate social assistance rates have forced thousands of Ontarians to turn to food banks not as a temporary measure in a situation of crisis, but month after month, the only response to the predictable fact that $572 each month is not enough to live on.

At The Stop Community Food Centre in Toronto, our emergency food programs are busier than ever. As an organization and as a community we are thankful for the immense generosity of the people who continue to make donations in these tough times. Our community and our donors are doing their part, but we all know that without government action, our efforts are simply not enough.

It’s time to take a different approach, to look beyond charity and raise social assistance to adequate levels. There is growing recognition that something is wrong and growing public support to raise the rates to a reasonable level.

Put Food in the Budget is a campaign launched by The Stop Community Food Centre and the Social Planning Network of Ontario. To start a conversation about Ontario’s social assistance rates, these organizations designed an online budgeting tool called “Do the Math” (www.dothemath.thestop.org).

More than 1,700 people have now logged on to “Do the Math,” calculating the minimum monthly amounts they think are necessary for a single person for food, housing, transportation, health, clothing and personal hygiene, entertainment and miscellaneous expenses such as banking fees.

The average amount calculated by respondents to date is $1,430. While this is a frugal number that most of us would have difficulty living on each month, it is considerably more than the current $1,020 that a single person receives on Ontario Disability Support Benefits and far more than the $572 received by someone on Ontario’s basic welfare program, Ontario Works.

Clearly, social assistance rates do not add up to provide a life of health and dignity for the growing number of people who rely on it to pay the bills. It’s time to put to rest the tired stereotypes that people on social assistance are lazy or drug-addicted. People want to work, but this recession demonstrates that until we resolve the deep structural flaws in our labour market some people will remain on the sidelines looking in. As the income support program of last resort, social assistance must support people in their time of crisis until they can go back to work.

More people in Ontario are beginning to see this not only as an issue of injustice, but as a growing health crisis. When Ontarians can’t afford healthy food, it means people get sick and develop chronic illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease. That’s why medical officers of health around the province want the Ontario government to increase social assistance by $100 a month – a kind of healthy food supplement – as a first step toward addressing the inadequacy of Ontario’s social assistance programs.

The McGuinty government’s commitment to a poverty reduction strategy began as a hopeful sign, but it has focused its efforts to address poverty only on children and low-wage workers, while neglecting the crisis faced by adults on social assistance. Will its promised review of social assistance ensure rates that provide enough income so that no one has to make a choice between paying the rent and feeding the kids or themselves?

The early months of this recession were marked by trillion-dollar bailouts for banks and insurance companies around North America. This Thanksgiving, it’s time to include an increase in social assistance to ensure health and dignity for all. Over Thanksgiving we ask you to take a few minutes and go to the “Do the Math” website and share with us your opinion on how much a single person needs in order to have a life of health and dignity in Ontario.

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