Ontario needs a government that will legislate health, not poverty

Posted on May 29, 2022 in Health Debates

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TheStar.com – Opinion/Contributors
Fri., May 27, 2022.    By Gary Bloch, Jennifer Stone, Contributors

Low social assistance rates aren’t just legislated poverty — they’re legislated destitution and poor health. These policy choices don’t save us money.

Health care is not what makes us healthy. Enough food, a decent place to live, rich social and community connections, and freedom from discrimination make us healthy. Underlying all of those, having a high enough income to live with dignity is an absolute prerequisite for health.

Poverty is not a passive condition, however. For decades we have elected governments that forced millions into deeper poverty through flawed and grossly unhealthy legislative decisions.

This is where we, a lawyer and a doctor, find common ground. We work together through a health-legal partnership called the Health Justice Program. Funded by Legal Aid Ontario with support from the St. Michael’s Hospital Academic Family Health Team, the program brings legal services to family medicine patients. Community legal clinics partner with primary care providers to help low-income patients navigate legal systems. Together with our patients-clients, we pursue opportunities to reform laws and policies to improve health and access to justice.

The pandemic increased our workload. Most striking is how those living at the lowest incomes have been left to their suffering. We have long argued social assistance needs to provide a basic livable income if those living in the deepest poverty are to have any hope of improving their health. When the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) was offered at $2,000 per month, our governments shone a light on where they feel that livable level should be — at least for those they deem worthy.

Individuals receiving Ontario Works continue to be asked to live on $733 per month, while those on Ontario Disability Support Program receive $1,169 per month. These rates have not increased since 2018. Since then, inflation has risen 11 per cent. Any guesses as to why social assistance recipients are the least healthy in our province?

While many appreciated the surge in COVID-related social supports through programs like CERB, we saw their dark side, and the persisting social injustices they briefly papered over. As is often the case, the most vulnerable fell through the cracks.

Many people living on low incomes were at first told they qualified, and are now being asked to pay back funds they do not have. They now face deeper poverty than they experienced before the pandemic. Seniors receiving CERB had their Guaranteed Income Supplement recalculated, leaving them with a lower income once COVID supports ended. People living in subsidized housing found their rents recalculated based on their temporarily higher income, and now face monthly bills they cannot pay.

Low social assistance rates are not just legislated poverty — they are legislated destitution, and legislated poor health. Research has shown poor health is a direct consequence of living in poverty. These policy choices do not save us money — in fact, they provide people like us — legal aid lawyers and doctors — with a steady stream of business, paid for out of other pockets of the public purse.

This election, none of the three major parties are offering enough to people living in deep poverty.

Let’s start by raising social assistance rates to at least the levels offered through CERB (plus an extra supplement to cover the needs of people living with disabilities). And then let’s build other social programs to ensure every person in Ontario has their basic needs met, can live free from discrimination, and can stay out of our legal and medical offices.

As we are freed from necessary public health restrictions, we recognize the beauty of being able to enjoy our society and communities once again: to visit restaurants, go to the movies and join crowds at sporting events.

People living in the deepest poverty enjoy no such freedom. Governments continue to restrict their ability to participate as they choose in our society. The pandemic has shown us we have the resources to open these opportunities to all. On June 2, we encourage you to choose a government that will legislate health — not poverty.

Gary Bloch is a family physician with St. Michael’s Hospital Academic Family Health Team. Jennifer Stone is executive director of Neighbourhood Legal Services and lead lawyer with the Health Justice Program.


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