During the provincial election that sadly passed without a whimper from the public ... a story was published in the Toronto Star that stated Dalton McGuinty promised to deliver a time line and action plan on the reduction on poverty within a year of his re-election. After he was elected and his re-elected government was sworn in, he announced the appointment of Deb Matthews, a progressive Liberal from the London area to head up a Cabinet Committee of sorts to lead the government's anti-poverty strategy.
I like Deb Matthews. A few years ago, as Parliamentary Assistant to then Minister of Community and Social Services, Sandra Pupatello, she traveled the province to talk to different people about what needs to be done to address the inefficiencies and punitive regulations in the Ontario Works and Ontario Disability Support Program Act. A number of her recommendations were eventually implemented, which many anti-poverty activists saw as a good thing. These changes were positive; however, on the backdrop of all this, the elephant of needing to raise the rates substantially still remained in the room. At meetings with anti-poverty activists, she was empathetic but non-committal about the rates issue. However, Ms. Matthews is known to be one of McGuinty's more progressive thinkers in his coterie.
While it may appear that McGuinty is determined to develop and implement an anti-poverty strategy, the cynical part of our population wonders if all this hoopla really means anything at all. During McGuinty's last term, his government passed the implementation of the Ontario Child Benefit (OCB), a benefit through which they have already lied to the public about its overall benefit and impact on the pocketbooks of the poor. First, Dalton is telling everybody that once the OCB is fully implemented, the hideous and much disliked clawback of the National Child Benefit Supplement (NCBS) will be ended. While the OCB does look good on paper and it will benefit the working poor more than those on social assistance, it is not really what it was marketed to be. As I stated in an earlier post, McGuinty and his gang has tried to woo us all with BIG numbers ... to make it look like they're digging in deep to provide a spanking new benefit for the poor. A full $2.1 billion worth! How can anybody fault them for that?
The problem is that the funding to cover this $2.1 billion promised over five years is going to be paid for in part by issuing yet another clawback against people on social assistance. The Liberals won't tell you this, of course, as they would rather disguise this new clawback under more attractive language, such as "restructuring of social assistance benefits" and "getting children off welfare". All this sounds absolutely attractive to an unknowing public, who has by now assumed the child poverty problem in Ontario just disappeared with the stroke of a pen in Ontario. After all, nobody is marketing those commercials showing young children with fat bellies and flies all over them, as they proceed to labour at a dollar a day anymore .... oops, this is not supposed to be about Ontario. But then again, Ontario's child poverty problem is solved, is it not? I noticed the Toronto Star which is sometimes viewed as progressive from an anti-poverty stance substantially reduced its coverage of child poverty as soon as the ink dried on the 2007 budget presentation.
In fact, I spoke to members of the so-called public about the budget shortly after it was made public. Almost all of them actually believed that people who are on social assistance that have children will be taken out of poverty ... end of story. That's what McGuinty wanted us all to believe. However, come July 1, 2008, a number of changes will be made to the social assistance benefit structure for those recipients that have children. Singles and childless couples will not be affected by these changes. One way to determine the difference is to look up the regulations over the web ... they are publicly posted on a site called e-laws under "source law". Under this section, each regulation that gets passed can be read under its respective Act. The first one shows what the budgetary table will be for families on ODSP (just to make it simple ... for OW, the changes are similar, but the numbers are different). The first one shows how much people will be getting for their "basic needs" portion of their budget as of November 1, 2007; the second one shows what people will be getting as of July 1, 2008. See the difference? Like, about a 30% drop!
But no, Dalton and his gang will argue. Nobody will be hurt by these new regulations. What this "restructuring" essentially does is take money out of the pockets of families on social assistance to help pay for the OCB for both the so-called working poor and to a lesser extent, themselves. Most of this $2.1 billion talked about is just an expensive shell game at best, moving money from social assistance cheques to be put back on later in the month for the OCB. At the same time, one's entitlement to the OCB will be determined by their income. Not taxable income, it seems, but income - period. So, if your family is on ODSP, pays full rent, and one or more member(s) of your family receive special diets, medical transportation, mandatory medical necessities or other disability-related income, it will count against you in spades. Those that will benefit the most from this newest contraption will be those families that have taxable earnings of $20,000 and under and have no social assistance, particularly if this same family also lives in social housing. Those with less expenses and less costs will get more money! Does this make any sense to you? The OCB and NCBS gets clawed back by a certain percentage for every dollar of "income" you have above $20,000 - regardless of what this income is for. Do I smell a disability discrimination case coming on? It would be a lot simpler to base this all on TAXABLE INCOME ... because the more taxable income one receives, their OW and/or ODSP cheques are clawed back substantially anyways.
The writers of this policy did not seem to relate to the issues of families on ODSP, particularly if they are getting their full shelter allotments. If this is happening, it is likely that most of their "basic needs portion" is also going to shelter as well. Remember? Dalton and his gang thought that rents and housing costs stopped going up since 1975! That's why we're stuck in the 1970's with the very low shelter rates that are provided for families on ODSP, or anybody really. So, what does that have to do with the price of eggs? Okay, the first cheque that is going to be "affected" by this dog and pony show of Dalton's is the July 31, 2008 cheque for people on ODSP and the July 1, 2008, cheque for people on OW. Immediately, there will be a 30% drop in the 'basic needs' part of the budget. That means for those who spend the average rate of 73% of their total income on housing will have to wait until July 20th (for OW recipients) or August 20th (for ODSP recipients) to eat! Each month after that will be on a constant spiral of catching up. For example, if you had to go into your overdraft to afford to purchase groceries for your family on the 1st, your cheque on the 20th will simply bring your account back to zero ... but then again, you still have to eat from the 20th until the end of the month, don't you?
Further, the 30% drop is right away. This applies to all families, regardless of whether they are only receiving a partial OCB/NCBS benefit or the full amount. This new hard maximum will also reduce the threshholds for families that have earnings before they are in danger of working themselves off benefits altogether. Moreover, the more earnings, the further the OCB/NCBS will also be clawed back ... It will certainly not encourage people to earn as much as possible, particularly if the family has an able-bodied worker that can work, but is not a high enough earner to be able to take on the family's finances on their own.
Okay, okay. Maybe it's not all doom and gloom. Maybe, as some anti-poverty activists say, people will be a bit better off. Calculations that I heard about at their most optimistic would give a social assistance family an additional $51 per child per month once the whole show is rolled out in 2011. This is in 2011! That means, between July 1, 2008 and July 1, 2011, rent increases will be approximately 6 - 8%, electricity will likely go up (as the Liberals want to squeeze every dime from ratepayers to help them pay for those golden parachutes of the fallen hydro executives), gas prices will likely go up (particularly if these wars in the Middle East persist and they will), inflation will go up approx 6 - 8%, as will the cost of food, clothing, etc. I actually believe people at that point will be losing money, not gaining any! So, where did the $2.1 billion promised for this benefit go? It was taken from the social assistance budget to divide it up unevenly between the so-called working poor (who will get almost twice the net benefit) and back to those on social assistance. I know a scam when I see one, but unfortunately, too many voters actually believed McGuinty wiped child poverty off the map.
But what about the rest of McGuinty's anti-poverty agenda? Did he not promise the anti-poverty groups a reduction of 25% of the numbers living in poverty over the first five years? To me, I believe this plan would be modest and it is certainly possible, but will the Liberals actually do it? Policy analysts say if a concerted effort is given towards the reduction of poverty, many areas must be covered ... not just hiking social assistance rates or playing shell games with child benefits. To me, poverty must be attacked at its roots, not at its symptoms ... in order to do this, we have to ask the hard questions that need to be asked, particularly of businesses - many of whom give generously to the coffers of the Liberal Party. For example, are businesses prepared to pay a living wage to its workers? Are employers prepared to hire people - regardless of disability status or ethnicity - based on their abilities and not other characteristics, such as where they got their work experience or whether or not the person has a driver's license. It seems to me that employers don't care if you're a PHd or a high school drop-out, but if you can drive, you're in ... even if you don't have to drive on a regular basis as a bona fide occupational requirement. Keeping up this charade maintains a "nice" certain middle class culture and keeps out the riff-raff, such as people with disabilities, people who are from another country or people living in poverty. The way employers think, plan and act has to be completely changed in order to move more people out of poverty ...
Further, the government needs to draw a line in the sand. If employers are bitching that they can't get local people to work for them, governments need to STOP catering to them and subsidizing them either directly or indirectly ... unless these employers are willing to pay a living wage. If employers are found to continue using policies that are discriminatory to certain groups, thus resulting in a disproportionate number of members in these groups to live in poverty - then these employers need to be fined heavily as a cost of doing business this way ... with all the proceeds from these fines to be applied directly to those persons who have to continue living on OW or ODSP for a longer period of time as a result of repeatedly being turned away from jobs for these reasons ... and get a top-up, like at least $500 more per single individual and $1,000-$1,500 more per family (on top of what they already get)! To me, employers will never learn until they have to dig into their own pockets as a consequence of their continued discriminatory practices. If an employer harbours workplace bullies or protects them, those that own the company as well as those doing the bullying should pay out of their own pockets - any compensation - that is awarded to their targets. Any organization that receives government funding or is licensed in any way by any regulatory body would lose its funding and/or license if it continues ... otherwise, we will continue to be raising "issues" about workplace bullying well into the year 2525 without any resolution in sight.
For those individuals and families headed by people who are unable or unavailable for work, their net income must never fall below the floor upon which one can pay for an average home (rent or buy), eat well, transport themselves and their families, as well as supply themselves with clothing, heat, electricity, reasonable recreation, health care and other "human needs". People living in poverty are tired of eating less per day than is given to prisoners, while they are forced to remain in their homes day after day after day with nothing to do. People who are too disabled to work for example are punished instead of supported in a dignified, independent lifestyle, while prisoners eat well, are given a trade and are guaranteed shelter during their time "inside". Politicians should not be the ones that determine what people need to live on. I sincerely believe that given their upper middle class backgrounds, they don't have a clue what low-income people need to make ends meet. If you are in your own home, you should be able to remain in it and not have to keep moving to cheaper and cheaper and less and less safe accommodations until you hit rock bottom and end up on the streets.
Yes, a true anti-poverty plan is going to cost money ... money that most politicians would rather give to their wealthy friends in the form of tax breaks and corporate welfare. To truly have a plan to eradicate poverty, politicians have to change the way they think and act ... they need to stop giving millions of dollars to cricket clubs and ethnic organizations allegedly linked with executive members of Liberal riding associations and former Lberal candidates/elected members (or their spouses). They need to directly involve people living in poverty to assist them in understanding some key issues, such as how much it really costs to live (e.g things have changed a lot since 1975), what people really need to escape poverty and what people's skills really are ... the politicians might surprise themselves! After all, one out of six household heads that are on ODSP have completed university. Many others have college or partial credits. ... the old Liberal solutions of teaching people how to read, giving them their grade twelve and helping them with their resumes is not entirely effective anymore. Getting people jobs at Wal-Mart and Starbucks and call centres is not going to cut it for many of these people ... that will only transform somebody from the welfare poor to the working poor and the poverty situation doesn't change a bit! Get real!
Some sacred cows may also need to be fried ... for example, building more rent-geared-to-income housing is NOT going to get rid of poverty. It just makes it more invisible and insidious. If you want to keep somebody trapped in a no-win situation, that is the way to do it .. claw them back every time they move an inch and don't let them progress! It is actually better to find ways to help people keep the homes they have or get better housing if they are presently in substandard housing. This can be done through a variety of fiscal measures, including refundable tax credits, shelter allowances for OW and ODSP reflecting real costs as opposed to the costs in the 1970's and various incentives to help people purchase their own homes.
Do I think Dalton McGuinty is going to meet his 25 in 5 target? Of course not. He may have appointed Deb Matthews to head this committee, but how much power will this committee really have? Will there even be a budget for this next shell game? Will there be real and meaningful consultation with those who live in poverty, as opposed to talking to all the food bank directors and Salvation Army platoons? Will all Ministries that directly or indirectly impact on the poor be held to certain targets and made accountable if they fail to achieve them? For example, the Ministry of Finance is a big player on this team and should be ... it is going to cost money, especially in the first few years. It is only after poverty is truly reduced or even eliminated that we will actually notice something unusual ... we will be saving lots of government dollars in just about every Ministry. There will be less need for health care dollars to go to treat preventable diseases, less money necessary to crack down on crime and pay for corrections, less money on long-term disability and worker's compensation (which is where the private sector will see a direct benefit) and more money will be available to provide for cultural activities, education, research and all the good things we want out of our communities ... and we can even help people in other countries ... yes, but that comes after we look after our own backyard first!
I would like to be still alive when the United Nations issues its report ranking Canada as Number One in terms of its poverty reduction strategy and economic/environmental sustainability. Your thoughts, people?