Queen’s Park offers crumbs to Ontario’s poor
TheStar.com – opinion/editorialopinion
Published On Thu Nov 24 2011. By Carol Goar, Editorial Board
Next week, welfare rates go up — but not by enough to buy a child a Christmas present, to put healthy food on the table or even to stave off eviction for many families.
On Dec. 1, the province’s 475,000 neediest people get a 1 per cent raise. For an individual, that amounts to an extra $7 a month. For a single parent raising two children, it is $9 more.
Keep in mind that consumer prices are rising by 3 per cent, so the modest increase will be gobbled up by inflation.
This adjustment will leave a single person on welfare — a woman escaping domestic abuse, a mentally ill man wandering the streets, a laid-off worker excluded from the employment insurance system — 66 per cent below Canada’s low income cut-off. It will leave a single mom with two preschoolers 56 per cent below the poverty line.
The poor won’t complain. They know they have no chance of moving Premier Dalton McGuinty.
Social activists won’t raise their voices. They now consider this a lost cause.
Ontarians won’t decry their government’s lack of compassion. They accept that lifting welfare recipients to the poverty line is unaffordable.
Politically, this constitutes a victory for McGuinty. He has extinguished the expectation that Ontario will care for the vulnerable.
Ideologically, it is a victory for the conservative movement. It has put to rest the long-held belief that a rich society has a responsibility to support its disadvantaged members.
Economically, it is a victory for market discipline. It is now accepted that the poor should fend for themselves.
These developments have divided anti-poverty activists. Some are lobbying for a housing benefit for low-income tenants; some want a nutrition supplement for hungry families; some seek more job training; some will settle for less punitive welfare rules.
The only hope they share is that Frances Lankin, former president of the United Way, andMunir Sheikh, former chief statistician of Canada, will produce a humane welfare reform plan. The two were commissioned by McGuinty last January to review Ontario’s social assistance system. Their deadline is January of 2012.
Judging from Lankin’s public statements, an increase in welfare rates is not in the cards. She believes there is enough money in the system. Moreover, she and Sheikh have a mandate that stipulates their blueprint must be “efficient, financially sustainable and accountable to taxpayers.”
This is not the scenario Ontarians envisaged when they elected McGuinty in 2003. They wanted relief from the slash-and-burn policies of former premier Mike Harris. They’d had their fill of his “Common Sense Revolution,” with its mean-spiritedness and social strife.
Initially, that appeared to be McGuinty’s agenda. He stabilized the schools, hired back the nurses Harris had fired, bolstered cash-starved municipalities and invested in the province’s crumbling infrastructure. There was something for everyone — except the poor. At the end of McGuinty’s first mandate, Harris’s 22 per cent welfare rate reduction remained intact.
Social activists assumed he would address Ontario’s social deficit in his second term. They convinced McGuinty to legislate an ambitious poverty reduction plan. He assigned one of his most progressive MPPs, Deb Matthews, to come up with a long-term strategy. After a year on the road listening to low-income Ontarians, visiting the agencies that served them and meeting anti-poverty activists, she unveiled her plan. It said nothing about welfare rates.
Now, as McGuinty embarks on his third term, his focus has narrowed. To keep the province’s $16 billion deficit from ballooning, he has just two priorities: preserve medicare and bolster public education. All other programs and services — from child nutrition to environmental protection — face the axe.
Welfare recipients have nowhere to turn. Neither opposition party is on their side. The non-profit sector is struggling. The social activists who fought to get them enough to live on have left the battlefield. The citizens who once cared about their plight are now worried about their own jobs, debts and standard of living.
The old Ontario — with its sturdy social conscience — is gone.
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