Progress, then decline, imperils Ontario’s poverty reduction strategy
TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorials – Ontario’s fifth progress report on poverty reduction sounds good, but more work is needed.
Dec 20 2013. Editorial
To read Ontario’s rosy poverty reduction progress report, made public this week, it sounds like just about all Ontarians are living the good life. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Of course, many worthy improvements have been made in the five years since 2008 when former Premier Dalton McGuinty (inspired by a Star series) declared a war on poverty. But recent lean times mean that poverty reduction has slowed and the poor are once again falling behind. In this Christmas season of plenty, it’s a shameful reminder of how precarious life has become for all too many.
While the anti-poverty strategy marched along very nicely in its first three years, it hit an unfortunate roadblock when 2012 became the year of austerity. It began with economist Don Drummond’s Commission on the Reform of Public Services (read: government cuts) and it wasn’t long before the next set of promised poverty improvements was generally put on hold.
The delay, for example, of a $110 monthly increase in Ontario Child Benefits made a huge difference to low-income families living on the poverty line (just under $28,000 a year) or those on social assistance, (roughly $21,000 a year). At the economic margins, every dollar helps.
That’s why, in 2014, the Liberal government should stop reneging on promises and get up to speed on scheduled improvements to the Ontario Child Benefit and an increase in the province’s minimum wage, frozen for almost four years at $10.25. At the same time, a promised review of social assistance recommended a $100 a month increase for Ontario Works, which has so far not materialized. That extra money, for example, could buy extra food for hungry, growing children.
The government’s recent report, called Breaking the Cycle, notes that early increases lifted some 47,000 children and their families out of poverty. However incremental, that’s a striking improvement, giving Ontario the second lowest poverty rate in Canada in 2011. Good news, although that’s in the past.
As Anita Khanna, an anti-poverty activist with Campaign 2000 says, advocates are worried that the decline in poverty will be reversed, setting back progress by years. “The government took courageous steps to create the poverty strategy and then stuck with it for three years before taking its foot off the proverbial gas pedal.” says Khanna. “Now, it doesn’t look like the downward trend in poverty will continue.” If austerity measures prevail, her worries will become reality. And that would be a tragedy.
For children, nothing is more important than a healthy start. Recent studies show that living with the constant stress of poverty and hunger actually limits the brain’s ability to function, since the mind is consumed with survival. If Ontario wants to create a society in which young people can emerge from the cycle of poverty, the government must be vigilant about providing those early extra supports.
While most of the improvements happened under McGuinty’s watch, some recent developments point to Premier Kathleen Wynne’s interest in becoming Ontario’s “social justice premier.” As the year rolls to an end, her ministers have been making reassuring announcements.
Labour Minister Yasir Naqvi tabled legislation that would protect temporary workers from unsafe workplaces and expand workers’ rights to collect unpaid wages. It’s a significant step forward. As the Star’s Laurie Monsebraaten reports, a groundbreaking study released earlier this year concluded that an astounding 50 per cent of Toronto and Hamilton area workers have “precarious” jobs, often temporary work, with no benefits and low pay.
In another positive move, Health Minister Deb Matthews announced changes that will provide free dental care for some 70,000 additional children from low-income families, allowing a total of 500,000 impoverished youth to get oral health care. Good teeth are vitally important to overall health. If only working poor adults could get the same dental treatment, the health costs of rotten teeth — which can lead to heart disease and terrible infections — would surely decline.
No matter how or where it’s offered, progress is good. But moving forward, the poverty reduction program must play catch-up so Ontario’s poor don’t fall further behind.
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