Making real changes on poverty

Posted on February 11, 2014 in Inclusion Debates – Opinion/Guest Column
February 10, 2014.   Rt. Rev. Michael Oulton

I had the opportunity to address the Standing Recently Committee on Economics and Financial Affairs of the Ontario Legislature. This all-party committee met in Kingston as part of the government’s pre-budget consultations throughout the province.

I addressed the committee on behalf of the Interfaith Social Assistance Reform Coalition (ISARC), Ontario’s major faith-based anti-poverty network. This coalition represents the province’s major faith communities inspired by a common belief in the dignity of every person. For nearly 30 years, ISARC has supported public policies that respect dignity and fairness for all.

I share the coalition’s overriding concern. Why can’t Ontario – one of the richest political jurisdictions in the world – provide the basics of life for all its citizens?

There is an unfortunate term which has made its way into public conversations such as the one that I was privileged to have with our elected representatives. Governments are often accused of having “tax-and-spend” policies. It seems to me that “tax and spend” is one the primary functions of government. Governments levy taxes and decide how to spend public resources to enhance the public good, but the “tax-and-spend” label has become shorthand for what our ISARC brief described as the “gospel of austerity.”

Tarring a government with the “tax-and-spend” brush implies recklessness. The not-so-subtle message is that governments waste money, tax too much and spend too much. The implied solution is more austerity and less taxation. I would submit that this approach creates a dangerous imbalance in society.

My view and that of ISARC is that budget decisions are really about making ethical choices.

Who pays taxes and at what rate? How is public money spent? What are the reasoned and reasonable choices that need to be made in order to strengthen our common life? These are the questions I addressed to the legislators on ISARC’s behalf.

Members of faith groups belonging to ISARC work on the frontline with low-income people across the province, helping them meet basic needs. The Lunch by George program, with which I am familiar, operates from the hall of St. George’s Cathedral feeding 280-300 of our most vulnerable neighbours every week. This program is just one of many in Kingston serving the vulnerable within our community.

We hear first-hand about what poverty actually means in people’s lives. Faith communities doing charitable work witness despair, including talk of suicide, by people who have lost hope. The secondary consequences of poverty including deteriorating health, security concerns and family breakdown can be directly linked to the deprivations and anxiety experienced by those who struggle to meet basic needs.

Here are some of the proposals that ISARC believes are the reasoned and reasonable approaches to budgetary decisions by the provincial government:

Restoring Ontario’s corporate tax rate to the 2009 level would raise $3 billion annually in government revenues. The 2012 Drummond report on the Reform of Ontario’s Public Services urged the Ontario government to take leadership in achieving a new, long-term affordable housing agreement with the federal government.

A portion of the $3 billion that Ontario would receive through restoring this rate could be directed toward a much needed $120 million commitment to affordable housing. People on Ontario Works (social assistance), with incomes of only $626 per month, live far below any standard of dignity. Raising the social assistance rate for single people by $100 per month would provide an immediate benefit, increasing accessibility to nutrition while only costing the government $177 million annually.

I am encouraged that Canadians are engaged in a healthy public debate about low wage work and growing inequality. The Ontario Government recently raised the $10.25 minimum wage rate to $11 an hour, promising to link future raises to the cost of living. This is a laudable start, however it falls far short of what Ontario’s low-wage workers need.

Indeed, it risks locking low-wage workers into poverty wages. The full-time minimum wage worker earning $11 per hour falls 16% below the poverty line. There are many who struggle even to find part-time jobs.

ISARC proposes increasing the minimum wage to $14 per hour in two stages, an immediate increase to $11.50 followed by a second increase to $14 by 2016. These extra earnings would be spent close to where people live, thereby boosting local economies while generating more tax revenue.

The fact that budgets are indeed about taxing and spending based on reasoned and reasonable priorities leads to some favourable comparisons on the income and expenditure sides: There is a crucial connection between poverty and health and consequently to health care spending. To its great credit, Ontario is extending free dental care to 70,000 more children and youth in low-income families. The Healthy Smiles Ontario program will increase access to dental cleanings, diagnostic services and basic treatment. However, similar services are needed for low-income adults. Visits to Ontario emergency rooms in 2012 for urgent dental problems cost the public some $30 million.

If we consider the social challenges faced in Ontario in purely budgetary terms, it makes sense to invest in serious poverty eradication programs.

I was reminded of this important insight in an article published in the Whig-Standard late last December by Queen’s University health studies scholar Elaine Power (“Health 101 Basics: A Community Wake-up Call”). Prof. Power pointed out that eliminating poverty cannot be just a matter of seasonal altruism. It is also good economic policy.

“We will all benefit tremendously as health care costs begin to fall,” she explained. “A growing body of research demonstrates that efforts to eliminate poverty would more than pay for themselves over time. In fact, the economic benefits would likely be double the cost.”

Following the presentation of the ISARC brief to the legislative committee I wrote to Ontario Finance Minister Charles Sousa in support of the growing chorus urging political leaders to initiate new and creative strategies for poverty eradication. It is my firm belief that the budgetary priorities of any government are investments in its citizenry, the hard working people who with proper support can be strong contributors to the whole of our common life.

Summoning the political will to confront the paradox of so much poverty in the midst of so much wealth will reap huge dividends for Ontario. Investing in those who struggle today, restoring their sense of dignity and self-worth, will strengthen our common life and the pride we share in this truly blessed land.

The Rt. Rev. Michael Oulton is the Bishop of the Anglican Diocese of Ontario

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