Liberals urged to ‘put food in the budget’

Posted on in Social Security Debates

Source: — Authors: – news/Ontario
Published On Thu Mar 10 2011.    Laurie Monsebraaten, Social Justice Reporter

Back in 1995, the opposition Liberals scorned the Mike Harris government’s so-called “welfare diet,” which purported to show that a single person on social assistance could eat for $90 a month.

Today that meagre Tory shopping list — which included pasta but no sauce and bread but no butter — costs $48 more. And yet since the Liberals took office in 2003, a single able-bodied person on welfare gets just $29 more in their monthly cheque for food.

“It’s no wonder food bank use in Ontario is soaring,” said social policy expert John Stapleton, who used the 1995 shopping list to buy the welfare diet at a Scarborough discount grocery store in January.

It is one more reason anti-poverty activists across the province are calling on Finance Minister Dwight Duncan to put a $100 monthly food supplement for welfare recipients in this spring’s provincial budget.

On Thursday, the Toronto Anglican Diocese is highlighting the need at a Queen’s Park rally. About 80 area parishes, representing more than 30,000 Anglicans, are backing the call for the Liberals to “put food in the budget.” They will be joined by food activists from other faiths and representatives from 30 other Ontario communities who are also concerned about rising hunger across the province.

With an $18.7 billion provincial deficit and Wednesday’s promise of no new taxes, Duncan will be hard-pressed to give people on welfare an additional $1,200 a year, rally organizers acknowledge.

“It’s a question of setting priorities,” says Bishop Linda Nicholls. “We don’t accept the argument that Ontario can’t afford to help the poor.”

Welfare, which increased by 1 per cent last fall, is just $592 a month for a single person, up from $520 in 1995.

Tracy Mead, 45, has been struggling with hunger for three years since ill health forced her to trade her overnight security guard job for welfare.

She supports the $100 food supplement, but only as an emergency measure until the province completes its 18-month social assistance review under former United Way president Frances Lankin and former Statistics Canada head Munir Sheikh.

“You are always on edge, always thinking about food and where you are going to get another $20 to go to the store and get what you need,” says Mead, who will speak at Thursday’s rally. “It’s complete stress all the time.”

If it was difficult to survive in 1995 on the welfare diet after the Tories cut rates by 21.6 per cent, it is even tougher today, says Stapleton.

Since then, welfare has inched up by 14 per cent, inflation has grown by 34 per cent and food in the welfare diet has shot up by almost 54 per cent.

The impact has been particularly dire on single people on welfare who have not benefited from the introduction of federal and provincial child benefits, he says.

The trend is alarming, especially since the number of single people on welfare has jumped by 57 per cent to 143,000 cases since 2000, Stapleton says.

At the same time, lone parent households on welfare have dropped by 21 per cent to just 76,000 cases.

In a recent research paper he co-authored for the Institute for Competitiveness and Prosperity, Stapleton warns that Ontario’s poverty reduction strategy cannot ignore the links between access to healthy food and the province’s long-term economic health.

“Countless studies show that a healthy labour force results in higher life expectancy, higher labour productivity, lower health costs and an overall higher standard of living and well-being,” he says in the report entitled “The poor still pay more: Challenges low income families face in consuming a nutritious diet.”

The report recommends a new housing benefit for all low-income households that would free up money for food; incentives to encourage retailers of lower priced and healthier foods to locate in low-income areas; and lower dairy prices through the eventual elimination of dairy marketing boards.

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