Wake-up call on poverty

TheStar.com – comment/editorial – Wake-up call on poverty
June 29, 2008

As Children and Youth Services Minister Deb Matthews and her cabinet committee explore the best ways to reduce poverty in this province, they would do well to heed the “gathering storm” warnings of the Ontario Association of Food Banks.

Low-income people are getting squeezed from all directions. For example, prices for basic foods like bread, flour and bananas have risen by up to 33 per cent in the past year.

For people on fixed incomes, including seniors and those on social assistance and disability benefits, and others in remote northern communities, where food prices are an average 86 per cent higher, this could mean a choice between eating and going hungry.

Add to that the fact that in the past five years, gasoline prices have risen by 62 per cent and household heating fuel by 89 per cent. The change in the price of gas alone in the past five years is equal to the monthly rent on a one-bedroom Toronto apartment.

Some 318,500 Ontarians a month are forced to rely on food banks to get by, an increase of 15 per cent since 2001. Even those with jobs face a looming crisis. The downturn in the economy is expected to put another 45,000 people out of work in the coming year. Meanwhile, food banks are warning their donations are down.

All this increases the pressure on the government of Premier Dalton McGuinty to deliver on the Liberals’ promise of a comprehensive poverty-reduction strategy.

According to the food banks, such a strategy should include a low-income inflation index that would see welfare benefits and the minimum wage increase automatically as prices rise. And it should include an energy component to help low-income households pay for heat.

The federal government, for its part, has to fix the broken Employment Insurance system, which provides benefits to only 27 per cent of Ontario’s unemployed. With a downturn in the economy, even more families will be forced to resort to welfare, where rates have increased by only 7.6 per cent since 2003, far less than the cost of the most basic of needs.

The report is “a wake-up call,” warns Adam Spence, executive-director of the food bank association. One hopes that the alarm bells are ringing in government circles.

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