Modest help for the poor in Ontario’s budget

Posted on April 27, 2015 in Social Security Debates – Opinion/Editorials –
Apr 27 2015.  Editorial

Kathleen Wynne’s second budget contained thin gruel for low-income Ontarians. The self-styled “social justice premier” did not forsake them, but she did not provide enough help to lift many out of poverty.

On the positive side, the provincial government raised social assistance rates by 1 per cent, adding a monthly top-up of $25 for childless adults (typically people living in homeless shelters or on the street). These are the poorest of the poor. Next November, their monthly benefit will go up to $681. It stood at $626 when Wynne became premier.

On the negative side, the 40 per cent of welfare recipients with partners or children will lose ground to inflation.

That wasn’t the only shortfall. The budget contained no assistance for municipalities struggling to meet the burgeoning demand for affordable housing. Nor did it provide funds to fix the deteriorating social housing it downloaded onto cities a decade ago. Toronto Community Housing, for example, estimates its repair backlog at $2.6 billion. Some of its buildings are literally falling apart.

Similarly, the Liberals provided nothing to low-income parents who need subsidized child-care. This excludes single mothers from the workforce until their children start school.

The premier did take one progressive stride in the health-care sector. She gave personal support workers, who carry the vast majority of the load for home-care and long-term care, a $2.50-an-hour wage increase (following a $1.50 increase last year). These predominantly female workers who feed, clothe, lift and bathe clients have been underpaid for decades. By raising their wage floor to $16.50 an hour, the government has lifted the majority out of poverty and made these jobs more attractive at a time when Ontario’s aging population is forcing the government to enhance community care.

Wynne also bolstered her government’s youth jobs strategy by $250 million over two years. Social activists are wary. They fear that little of the money will reach the young people who face the biggest barriers to employment – high school drop-outs, homeless youth and adolescents “known to police.” But they would have complained bitterly if Wynne had turned a blind eye to Ontario’s youth jobless rate of 18.1 per cent.

On balance, there wasn’t much for social justice proponents to applaud. But Wynne outscored Prime Minister Stephen Harper, whose April 21 budget contained nothing for Canadians living in poverty. She did better than her Liberal predecessor, Dalton McGuinty. And she resisted enormous pressure to use every available dollar for either deficit reduction or infrastructure building.

Municipalities were pleading for funds to alleviate the gridlock that was immobilizing their citizens. The bond rating agencies were breathing down her neck to address the province’s deficit and its $299-billion debt. The Harper government was eager for signs of tax-and-spend profligacy to use against Wynne’s federal Liberal counterparts in the coming election. Public-sector employees wanted relief from the wage freeze imposed by the province three years ago. With all these forces bearing down on her, it would have been easy for Wynne to overlook the disadvantaged. She resisted that temptation.

It is true that she delivered the bare minimum to keep her “social justice” appellation. Austerity was watchword of her latest budget. Politically, its principal goal was to improve life for the middle-class: get traffic moving, reduce car insurance rates, and put beer in grocery stores. Economically, it did little to contain, let alone narrow, the widening gap between rich and poor.

It was not the blueprint anti-poverty activists hoped for. But in straitened times, it was the best Wynne could credibly offer.

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