Freezing Toronto social service and recreation budgets amounts to a cut

Posted on January 10, 2013 in Inclusion Delivery System – opinion/editorialopinion
January 08, 2013.   Tim Maguire

This year’s City of Toronto budget has been accompanied by a muted debate, especially when compared to the confrontational fight over the budget last year. So, does that signal a departure from last year’s drastic program and service cuts? Not as much as you’d think.

In fact, if there is one element that characterizes the budget this year, it’s the determined effort to perpetuate Toronto’s growing social infrastructure deficit.

That sounds like quite a mouthful, but it actually conveys a simple idea: as Toronto’s population continues to grow rapidly, its services are headed in the other direction. A rapidly growing population means the number of residents dependent upon services the city provides is growing as well. With a growing population and yearly inflation, a flat-lined budget is actually a cut in social infrastructure.

Budgets for services ranging from city-operated child care centres to shelters for the homeless have been flat-lined, locking in and expanding the previous years’ deep cuts. The impact on our most vulnerable residents has been, and will continue to be, devastating.

Today, there are 22,000 Toronto families on the waiting list for subsidized daycare spaces; that list will grow because of this year’s budget. Flat-lining this year’s budget for shelters means the number of homeless people looking in vain for a bed or a meal will grow too.

Perhaps the best example of this institutionalized social infrastructure deficit lies in the city’s recreation budget. The city’s recreation programs are a tremendous resource, providing desperately needed opportunities for youth to connect to their communities, seniors to remain active and engaged, and a pathway to a better sense of community for our newest neighbours. In order to bring the budget to zero in the face of normal inflationary increases, the recreation department is a proposing to cut up to $6 million from various programs and supports like summer camps.

Recreation is already woefully underfunded, with a resulting diminution in its impact on residents who would benefit from these programs. Recreation programming is burdened with thousands of residents on waiting lists. Lack of program space and affordability means many of the residents who would most benefit from these programs can’t get in, or can’t afford them.

Ironically, on the same day the city budget was proposed, council recognized that recreation must do more and passed a plan to expand access to city recreation services in Toronto. Councillors should alter the budget to better reflect their resolve and move now to expand free access programs at community centres in low-income neighbourhoods and provide greater support for children and youth.

A final note on recreation: Toronto’s Parks, Forestry and Recreation Division is one of the largest employers of youth anywhere; for many young workers, this is an all-important first job, helping provide skills and sense of confidence, and offering a positive alternative to at-risk youth. By cutting budgets in this area, the city will be reducing valuable employment opportunities for young people. It’s hard to see the sense in this approach.

Tim Maguire is president of CUPE Local 79.

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