Missing pieces in Ontario budget

TheStar.com – Opinion – Missing pieces in Ontario budget
March 29, 2009

Last week’s provincial budget covered a lot of ground with a harmonized sales tax to boost business and enhanced child benefits and tax credits for low-income families. But the $109 billion budget still didn’t manage to meet all the needs of a province seeking to reduce poverty and create jobs.

Affordable daycare, for one, was left out, notwithstanding the fact that it would both reduce poverty and stimulate employment. Expanded daycare would create jobs for child-care workers, enable parents to retrain for better jobs so they can participate in the knowledge economy that Ontario’s future depends on, and help single mothers lift their families out of poverty through work.

There was no funding in the budget to maintain the 22,000 daycare spaces slated to close due to expiring federal dollars, let alone to pay for badly needed expansion. The budget simply reiterated the province’s call for Ottawa to continue its funding for these spaces.

Yes, Ottawa should pay. But the federal budget has come and gone without the $63 million necessary to keep these spaces open.

What about the 4,000 child-care workers who will lose their jobs if those spaces close? And what of the families who will soon be told their child’s daycare space no longer exists? Ontario should fund those spaces until it gets Ottawa back to the table.

The budget was also silent on the $100 monthly food supplement advocated by anti-poverty activists, even though there is overwhelming evidence that it’s impossible to pay the rent and buy anything resembling healthy food with the $572 a month allocated to a single person on welfare. Instead, the province offered just $11.44 a month more through a 2 per cent hike in social assistance rates.

Studies have drawn a link between poverty and increased incidence of illness, so we’re paying now through our health-care system. Helping welfare recipients to buy fresh fruit and vegetables instead of cheap carbohydrates would be a more efficient way to spend the money.

There are a great many welfare rules that hold people back instead of helping them, but the budget failed to address one of the most egregious: the requirement that needy people first use up most of their assets before they can qualify for welfare.

“If you are a single individual, you do not qualify for welfare if you have liquid assets of over $572,” notes TD Bank economist Don Drummond. “What the welfare officer will tell (you) is that you need to deplete your lifetime savings and come back to us when you are destitute.” This serves no one’s interests as it makes a quick exit from welfare that much more difficult.

Finally, with growing concerns about climate change, there was some rhetoric in the budget speech about “tak(ing) advantage of Ontario’s emerging green economy.”

But the budget contained a curious anomaly: more money will be spent over the next two years on expanding highways ($3.75 billion) than on transit projects ($3.2 billion). This hardly seems like a green alignment of priorities.

In sum, Thursday’s budget was a bold document for tough times, but several opportunities were missed to do more.

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