Hot! Time to thaw out Ontario’s poverty reduction promise

TheStar.com – opinion/editorialopinion
Published On Mon Mar 28 2011.   Michael Creek and Jennefer Laidley

The coming of spring has given those of us working toward poverty reduction the hope of a thaw in the provincial budget as we count down to March 29.

Last year’s springtime budget left us bitterly disappointed by the province’s decision to scrap the special diet allowance for people on social assistance.

We were shocked because just a year before the provincial government had made history by committing to reduce child poverty by 25 per cent within five years.

We knew then — even before the recent rise in food costs — that this would have meant untold hardship for the poorest among us.

For Mike, cancelling the special diet allowance was personal. He thought about how that allowance had made it possible for him to afford the foods he needed to survive and recover from the cancer that once landed him on social assistance. We both thought about the thousands of Ontarians who similarly rely on the program for critical health support.

The special diet allowance decision led many of us to question whether the government was truly committed to changing policy to help end poverty. And the night of last year’s provincial budget, Mike fielded calls from people across the province who were in tears, afraid for the future.

Late last year, we were pleased to see the government wisely reverse its budget-time decision and take a different approach to the special diet allowance, albeit in a changed form that brings with it both limitations and benefits.

As we near the next provincial budget, we hope that the only surprises we get are good ones. We’re hoping for progress on four priorities for action articulated by the 25 in 5 Network for Poverty Reduction:

Ensure no one falls through the cracks in times of need.

Invest in people, their skills, and their efforts to secure work.

Ensure jobs are a pathway out of poverty.

Create infrastructure for opportunity.

Much of the success in these four priority areas will be affected by the results of the Commission for the Review of Social Assistance in Ontario, led by former United Way head Frances Lankin and former Statistics Canada head Munir Sheik.

The review will look at the special diet allowance and various other critical issues in the broader context of all income security programs. This is another step in the right direction, and the 18-month time frame will allow the commission to give these issues the serious examination they deserve.

But many of the problems that poor Ontarians face can and should be fixed, right now.

People on social assistance — and particularly single people without children — need an immediate increase to their incomes. Even before food and fuel costs began to skyrocket, these Ontarians were unable to make it on incomes as low as $592 per month. Their desperation and hunger is real.

Changing rules internal to the system — right now — would also help to give more people hope.

Increasing asset limits for people on social assistance, for example, would allow hard-hit Ontarians to save a small financial cushion to help them get back on their feet

Reducing or eliminating child support deductions would help single parents better provide for their children and increase their quality of life now and into the future.

And allowing people to retain their RRSPs while still receiving support would help stem the financial crisis that many Ontarians continue to struggle with.

Ontarians want leadership on poverty reduction. In a recent Angus-Reid poll, 89 per cent of Canadians agreed that people in poverty deserve a helping hand; 81 per cent said helping poor families sets up children for success. Almost all agreed everyone deserves a sense of dignity.

Since his recovery from cancer, Mike often talks about courage and how important it is to take the lead and make the tough decisions, now more than ever. The provincial government has the opportunity to do just that in the upcoming budget.

Thawing out Ontario’s poverty reduction promise is not just a question of courage — even more than that, it’s a question of leadership.

Mike Creek is with Voices From the Street, a group comprised of individuals who have had direct experience with homelessness, poverty, and/or mental health issues. Jennefer Laidley is with the Income Security Advocacy Centre (ISAC). Both are members of the 25 in 5 Network for Poverty Reduction.

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