Ted McMeekin talks but who can act on social assistance rates?

TheStar.com – opinion/commentary – Social services minister’s lack of power make consulting him pretty much pointless.
Jul 17 2013.   By: Melissa Addison-Webster

Ted McMeekin, Ontario’s minister for community and social services, is responsible for improving social assistance. At a community consultation in Peterborough on July 3, he made two notable statements:

  • “If it were up to me, I would raise social assistance rates by a lot more than $100 a month. But it’s not up to me.”
  • “I have to tell the story in a way that will marshal the resources. And you and I have to tell our story in a better way.”

While I am encouraged that Minister McMeekin recognizes the inadequacy of current social assistance rates and supports a significant increase, why does he not have the power to raise the rates? And why should such a decision depend on the quality of the stories that poor people tell — why is he making it our responsibility to prove that we deserve lives of health and dignity?

If the minister of community and social services lacks authority to significantly increase social assistance rates, important questions arise. Who can make that decision? Why is Ted holding consultations if he is just a messenger to someone who has yet to be convinced that poverty in Ontario is a crisis? Why should we talk to Ted McMeekin instead of directly with those who have the power?

Three scenarios come to mind.

First, maybe the cabinet has the ability to raise the rates. The 14 members of the cabinet’s poverty reduction committee include 10 ministers, three parliamentary assistants and former speaker Alvin Curling. With McMeekin as co-chair, how could this committee lack the clout to persuade 25 cabinet members to raise the rates? The government’s own Commission for the Review of Social Assistance concluded that current social assistance rates are completely inadequate, and urged immediate action. If committee members are not convinced — please tell us why — we’ll speak to them directly about their concerns.

The second possibility is that only the finance minister or premier can make this decision. If so, let us know, and we won’t waste time this summer “consulting” with Ted or other committee members. We will instead focus on Finance Minster Charles Sousa or Premier Kathleen Wynne.

Third, perhaps someone outside government holds the power. CEOs on Bay Street? We know that CEOs aren’t keen on having their incomes or profits taxed to increase social assistance rates. They don’t want to raise the minimum wage. They are not interested in greater income equality for all. Never mind the long-range implications, CEOs favour inadequate social assistance rates so that workers accept low wages rather than starve on social assistance.

If McMeekin thinks CEOs will change their mind when told “a better story,” he is deceiving himself and raising false hopes with the public.

He needs to ask his cabinet colleagues: “Whose side are you on?” And if the premier and cabinet don’t side with the hundreds of thousands of Ontario residents who do not have enough to eat each month, they are not on the side of social justice.

Finally, it is shameful for Ted McMeekin to suggest that raising assistance rates depends on the quality of stories we tell as people who are poor. If the plight of hundreds of thousands forced to go to food banks every month because of inadequate incomes is an inadequate “story” — what story would do?

Minister McMeekin is asking us to sing for our supper. And if our singing isn’t good enough, we are to blame if we continue to starve. This is a strange attitude from a former social work academic who is lauded for volunteering with his community and the United Church.

Actually, we know the answer to our own question. Premier Wynne has the power to raise social assistance rates. If Kathleen Wynne is as committed to being “the social justice premier” as she is to improving public transit, all she has to say is, “We are going to raise the rates and find the revenue.”

For his part, if Ted McMeekin is going to talk, he must publicly support raising Ontario’s social assistance rates now to ensure a life of health and dignity for people who live in poverty. He and other poverty reduction committee members can cancel their consultations and take the summer off.

We will speak our stories and our truth to Premier Wynne on our own behalf. And we’ll ask her the question that needs to be asked: Whose side are you on?

 

Melissa Addison-Webster is a member of the steering committee of the Put Food in the Budget campaign.

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