Poverty missing in budget plans

TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorial
Published On Sat Mar 27 2010

A provincial budget is more than a balance sheet of inputs and outputs; it is a statement of collective values. As such, a budget of 196 pages that commits just 6 1/2 pages to our most vulnerable Ontarians speaks volumes.

While the government says it remains committed to reducing poverty, Thursday’s budget does little to move us toward that goal. In fact, there are some backward steps in the budget.

For example, the government is cancelling a program that currently provides one in five social assistance recipients with extra funds to buy healthy food; it is raising welfare rates by just 1 per cent, less than projected inflation; and it fails to begin overhauling our rules-bound welfare system, which does a better job of keeping people down than lifting them up.

While the government was clearly constrained by the deficit, giving the back of the hand to welfare recipients makes little sense.

The government says the special diet program “is not sustainable and is not achieving the intended results.” It is easy to see why Premier Dalton McGuinty would be concerned about it, given that its costs have risen from $6 million to $200 million and the auditor general has singled the program out for criticism. But it is undeniably providing vital assistance to people who could otherwise not afford to buy specialized foods to manage their illnesses.

The government plans to replace it with a new program more focused on “severe” medical needs. The primary goal, however, is clearly not to create a better program but a cheaper one.

At $585 a month for a single person, the current welfare rate is clearly inadequate both to keep a roof overhead and buy nutritious food. This contributes to a growing population of Ontarians who are sicker than they need to be and ultimately drives up health-care costs. A 1 per cent hike – or $5.85 a month – won’t go far.

The budget does restate the government’s commitment to transform our outdated welfare system into one that makes it easier for people to get their lives back together and off welfare. But welfare advocates were disappointed not to see some beginning steps in that direction in the budget.

Given that this budget was about limiting government spending growth, with next to no new programs at all, it would not have been surprising to see poverty reduction underemphasized. This was, after all, a budget largely defined by the province’s deficit. But it is troubling that poverty reduction appears to have fallen so far off the government’s radar screen that it was almost overlooked in the budget.

The danger is that once the government’s fiscal situation improves it will be that much harder to lift up Ontarians who have sunk even deeper into poverty.

The budget background document makes the case for attacking poverty: “Supporting the vulnerable and helping them to succeed is not only fair but is also good for the economy.” Unfortunately, this budget does not do that.

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