Cost of Ontario’s 1995 ‘welfare diet’ soars amid inadequate rates

Posted on October 11, 2015 in Social Security Debates – News/GTA – What seemed like an impossibly meagre food budget in 1995 has become even more unattainable today.
Oct 10 2015.   By: Laurie Monsebraaten, Social justice reporter

Despite more than a decade of yearly rate increases and small policy adjustments, people who rely on social assistance are hungrier today than in 1995, when the former Mike Harris Conservative government gutted the province’s welfare system, according to a new report.

Twenty years ago this month, Harris’s social services minister David Tsubouchi suggested a single, able-bodied person on welfare could survive on a monthly food budget of $90.21.

His shopping list was ridiculed for including bread but no butter, and pasta but no sauce. Critics also noted the food contained less than half of the calories recommended by the World Health Organization.

Officially, inflation since then has been 45 per cent. But when Toronto social policy expert John Stapleton took Tsubouchi’s sample shopping list to the grocery store recently, he noticed the cost of the so-called “welfare diet” had spiked by 107 per cent, to $189.91.

Meantime, welfare rates — including November’s 3.8-per-cent hike for singles on Ontario Works — have increased by just 31 per cent, to $681 a month.

If rates had not been slashed in 1995 and had kept pace with inflation, a single person would be receiving $962 per month, Stapleton says in his report, titled “The Welfare Diet 20 years later: The growing nutrition crisis for Ontario’s poorest people.”

“The so-called welfare diet of 1995 was not a good diet nor a healthy one,” Stapleton says. “However, it does provide a useful benchmark for comparing the food costs that social assistance recipients have encountered since 1995.”

Not only have general welfare rates never recovered from the Harris cuts, the cost of food has skyrocketed, he says.  According to Stapleton’s analysis, the cost of fruits and vegetables is growing the fastest, followed by meat, dairy and grains.  And yet the Bank of Canada’s Consumer Price Index, which is used to measure the rate of inflation, doesn’t include the cost of fruit, nuts and vegetables.

“The problem is that commodities, especially over the last three years, have been going down while food prices continue to go up at rates that are higher than core inflation,” he says in the report.

Since the Bank of Canada’s inflation rate doesn’t include most food or shelter costs, Stapleton believes governments should tie minimum wage, welfare and pension increases to the all-items Consumer Price Index.  “If we are going to use indexing, we should use items that people actually use,” he says.

Now that nine of the 10 provinces have or are drafting anti-poverty strategies, Ottawa should end its silence on the issue and design a federal plan, he adds.  “Twenty years after the publication of the laughable welfare diet, Ontario’s poor are dealing with a crisis in nutrition that is no laughing matter whatsoever,” he says. “It is a disaster-in-waiting, in terms of health and human costs.”

The spiralling cost of nutritious food is causing more people to rely on food banks as a long-term coping strategy rather than just short-term help, says Richard Matern, of the Daily Bread Food Bank, who helped Stapleton calculate the cost of the shopping list.

“Our latest data is showing that people who have been coming for an average of 12 months are now coming an average of 24 months,” said Matern. “If the trend continues, this average will only increase.”

Stapleton’s report is based on food prices in August at the Real Canadian Superstore on Brimley Ave. near Highway 401 in Scarborough, which is within walking distance of a Toronto Community Housing complex, a Service Canada office that handles Employment Insurance and a municipal Ontario Works office. Prices at a nearby No Frills grocery store, which is not within walking distance of any residential areas, were higher for most items on the list, he adds.

Welfare diet By the numbers

$681 – Monthly welfare rate for a single, able-bodied person starting Nov. 1.
$962 – What that person would be receiving if rates weren’t cut in ’95 and were increased by inflation.
$90.81 – Monthly cost of food items in 1995 “welfare diet.”
$189.91 – Monthly cost of food items in welfare diet in 2015.
45% – Inflation since 1995.
107 – Percentage increase in cost of items in the welfare diet since 1995.
Source: John Stapleton

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One Response to “Cost of Ontario’s 1995 ‘welfare diet’ soars amid inadequate rates”

  1. I agree with this article when it says that it is time for Ottawa to deal with the food crisis on a federal level. It is atrocious to think that a welfare diet today will consist of almost 1/3 of an individual’s monthly welfare income. That discludes the cost of one’s rent, transportation, and other basic necessities of survival. Mike Harris’ reform is now a known low point in social service history yet little has been done to change his policies. It seems like those in charge have decided that other issues (such as pensions and protecting the middle class) are of more importance and that the impoverished can make do with what little they receive. Despite having little extra expenditure for food, policy makers attest that there is always a solution. The answer to this is not food banks. Food banks were designed to be a short-term solution for the poor, which was to be remedied as soon as possible. This has obviously not come to fruition because, as a 23 year old, I was raised in this country where Food banks have become an acceptable norm. Moreover, coming from a smaller northern Ontario community, the city’s Food Bank does not provide fresh fruits and vegetables for its recipients. It distributes bread, canned goods and hygiene products. If lucky, there will be a supply of milk and eggs. This alone would sustain an individual but not contain the essential nutrients for a healthy life. To say that food banks can even be a short-term fix for those who cannot afford the welfare diet would be like saying that Canada has given up on the health and prosperity of its poor.


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