Summit participants face a painful truth [CivicAction Alliance]

TheStar.com – opinion/editorialopinion
Published On Thu Feb 17 2011.   By Carol Goar, Editorial Board

Looking at the empty tables at the front of the room, Frances Lankin couldn’t hide her disappointment. The former United Way president and provincial cabinet minister, who is now spearheading Ontario’s social assistance review, was the first speaker at a session on income security at the Greater Toronto summit last week.

It had the lowest participation of any group. Moreover, it was unbalanced. There were dozens of anti-poverty activists, immigration settlement workers, child welfare advocates, community leaders and public health officials, but only a handful of private sector representatives.

How few became clear when Derek Burleton, vice-president and deputy chief economist of the TD Bank, asked corporate participants to raise their hands. Six went up. Before he could commend them, a voice piped up from the floor: “How many are from TD Bank?” Five of the six went back up. Burleton grinned sheepishly.

That set the stage for an honest, though painful, conversation about how to include everybody — including the 75,000 Torontonians living on social assistance — in the movement to build a strong, sustainable city-region.

To its credit, the CivicAction Alliance, which brought together 1,000 leaders from all sectors of society, put the growing gap between rich and poor on its agenda. And to their credit, the 60 people who signed for up the session tried hard to come up with ideas to reverse the polarization.

They brainstormed about how to fix — or replace — Ontario’s stingy, punitive welfare system; how to lower the marginal tax rate that discourages social assistance recipients from working; how to broaden employment insurance to cover the 60 per cent of jobless Ontarians who aren’t eligible; how to convince Queen’s Park that forcing welfare applicants to liquidate their assets relegates them to permanent poverty and how to build public support for a housing benefit or food supplement for those in acute need.

Then they departed from the script. They talked openly about how to crack the wall of indifference between those who are losing ground and those who are amassing an ever-greater share of the region’s wealth.

This was unexplored territory. For the past 20 years, social activists have clung to an idealized image of Toronto as a city that cares for the vulnerable. They have churned out policy proposals and issued demands as if politicians and business leaders were listening.

Last week, they acknowledged reality: They aren’t.

What would it take, they asked, to open a dialogue? Could they make a credible case that it costs more to perpetuate poverty — in medical bills; social services; crime crackdowns and lost productivity — than free people from it? Could they get a hearing from corporate decision-makers? What would the first step be?

They reconvened with their suggestions 90 minutes later. Delegates at one table asked the CivicAction Alliance to organize a round table of business leaders on this issue exclusively. Their neighbours at the next table offered to draft a simple guide to Ontario’s fiendishly complicated social assistance system, showing how it traps people and creates a persistent underclass. The occupants of a third table called for a league of civic champions: business executives, health-care professionals and public officials willing to stand with those left behind by the recovery.

Their message was at least heard. CivicAction Alliance chair John Tory slipped into the room near the end of the session and took notes. The delegates can only hope it will be delivered and received graciously.

But the smallest session of the summit had one big benefit: A badly needed conversation began.

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