2008 ONTARIO BUDGET
Input into Budget Priorities
TO the Minister of Finance; Standing Committee
on Finance and Economic Affairs; and Cabinet
Committee on Poverty Issues
BY YOUR FAVOURITE BLOGGER
at her legal office's physical address ;-)
In the mandate of the present Government, incremental and piecemeal approaches to end poverty were favoured over approaches that actually served to reduce or eliminate poverty in vulnerable sectors. It is my position that incremental or piecemeal approaches that favour some groups above others do not in fact reduce or eliminate poverty or the costs associated with it. A refreshing proposal by the present Government to define poverty and identify ways to reduce it by 25% in five years is respected and favoured; however, my question is – who gets to get pulled out of poverty first?
I am an Independent Paralegal with a substantial practice in areas of Labour, Disability and Human Rights issues, as well as providing traditional services in the courts and tribunals where Paralegals are permitted to appear. I work with approximately 50 – 100 clients on an annual basis, ranging from short-term retainers to full cases that end in a Hearing or Appeal. I am also involved in a number of Coalitions, steering groups and panels that are involved in poverty and employment-related issues. For seven years, I also provided on a contractual basis, Employment Supports to persons with disabilities in the Niagara Region. Further, I manage or co-manage a number of Internet sites related to disability, poverty, human rights and related issues, which have a collective audience of almost 10,000 persons, most of whom are from Ontario, or from other parts of Canada. I am also a published writer who has been published over the past twenty years in a number of publications, ranging from street newspapers to news magazines to peer-reviewed journals. Because of this, my experience and work puts me in touch with poverty and labour issues on a day-to-day basis – thus putting me in a position to understand how policies and priorities set out by any Government can succeed or fail in its stated objective of poverty reduction.
This presentation is a representation of my own views and experience and does not necessarily reflect the views of mentioned organizations and committees with which I have been involved.
Like most analysts, I note a number of efforts have already been undertaken by your Government towards the amelioration of poverty. These efforts are noted as follows:
1. Ontario Child Benefit
2. Shelter Allowance (ROOF)
3. A 3%, 2% and 2% increase to Ontario Works/ODSP rates
4. Regulatory changes to permit increased earnings, assets and related measures for OW/ODSP recipients; &
5. Some other changes to related programs and services, such as WSIB, OSAP, among others.
In the last provincial election, among your renewed promises was a commitment by your Government to set up a Cabinet Committee to define, track and reduce poverty by 25% or more over the next five (5) years. This promise was one that was applauded by virtually every anti-poverty organization across Ontario and by the Toronto Star. Please understand if these same organizations become less than pleased if they do not see any new initiatives or better targeted efforts in this budget towards this end. The ‘rumour mill’ has it that your Government has no plans to add anything new, other than what it had already started in last year’s budget (e.g. Ontario Child Benefit). That in my view will not lead to any further applause from anybody.
The majority of poor people I represent or have worked with are persons with disabilities. The substantial majority of persons with disabilities are single and in some other cases, married or common law couples, with no children under eighteen years of age living with them. Many have children, but they have grown up and since started their own lives, or in the case of many persons with disabilities, remained single because ODSP itself penalizes people for engaging in relationships (unless the person they are engaging a relationship with is also on ODSP). Approximately 12%-15% are single, married or common law with children under the age of eighteen living with them.
For the most part, other than example # 3 (above), these people have not benefited from any of your new budgetary initiatives announced in 2007, and for them – the 3%, 2% and 2% increases are barely a drop in the bucket when compared to the spending power lost since 1993, when the rates were last raised before November 2004, when your Government initiated its first raise. Even with the total of all of the raises implemented, this only brings people on ODSP up to the same spending power they had in perhaps 1995 or 1996, but not much further. Yet since then, inflation, rent hikes, electricity rates, gas rates, transit fares, grocery prices have increased by more than 25% since then.
As pointed out to your Government by many participants in this process, including the ODSP Action Coalition and others, neither OW or ODSP rates are based on any rational criteria and are certainly not set in relation to the actual costs of shelter and other basic necessities. While most people on assistance do rent, many also do own their own homes. Homeowners who are in receipt of OW/ODSP have been left off your radar. Many have had their homes prior to getting put on ODSP or were able to acquire them later through the assistance of an inheritance or similar windfall. These people have no interest in joining the lengthening wait lists for social housing … they just want to be able to continue to afford to live where they live now, as well as improve their properties to reduce energy use and/or modify their surroundings to fit their family’s needs. Even for those that do rent and choose to join the wait list for social housing, the wait is quite long and it is not unheard of to be put on the list when their children are in grade school, but not be accepted until their children are of age and ready to leave home. A recent article in the Toronto Star cited the wait list in Peel Region to be approximately 22 years. In most regions, it is 7 to 10 years.
Long wait lists for social housing are not present because of demand for their ‘high quality’ abodes. In fact, most families I know that are *not* on the wait list are not there because they choose better neighbourhoods for their children and wish to live in properties that have at least an acceptable standard of maintenance in them. While it is not your Government’s choice, but large municipalities across Ontario are stuck with bills of hundreds of millions of dollars in maintenance for the housing that is already there … let alone, build any more. If my family were faced with the choice, we would rather stay where we are – despite the fact we pay over 50% of our income on housing.
Long wait lists are in fact based on artificial demand that would not be necessary at all if people had sufficient means to afford “market rents”. The wait lists are there because OW/ODSP and even minimum wage rates are set without any rational criteria of what it actually costs to meet basic needs. The answer to this is not to build more and more of this type of housing that will only meet the needs of a few, and eventually fade into disrepair and neglect, but to ensure that ALL people have the means to afford average housing costs in their region of residence and family size, using tables of average rents by Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. Neither housing or utility costs should be taken out of an individual or family’s ‘basic needs’ budget.
Further, many other commodities have increased in price over and above the rate of inflation over the years. For example, it was your Government’s decision to remove the cap on hydro rates and provide for hikes in the rates for natural gas. In my own family’s case, even with the purchase of CFC bulbs, washing in cold water among other methods within our control, our hydro bills have more than doubled over the past five years. We cannot afford energy-efficient appliances to reduce our output. In effect, our family, like many other families are held hostage to higher hydro rates, while families of better financial means can acquire energy-efficient appliances and home improvements to reduce their output. Despite specific lobbying efforts by organizations like the Low Income Energy Network, your Government has yet to announce a realistic program that would actually reduce output for families of low or modest means. This is the time to roll such a program out, especially if your Government wants to continue to push for the placement of smart meters and further increase utility rates.
Grocery costs go up along with the price of gas. There is a movement afoot in many communities to get more people to shop locally. However, if you are poor and have no means of transportation to get to these places, you are forced to pay higher prices for imported goods at supermarkets. Further, if you have medical problems, finding the kinds of food that you need to eat to keep healthy is more difficult and expensive. The Special Diet Allowance was significantly cut to many individuals and families with medical problems, making it even more costly and difficult for them to meet these costs. Many medical problems are not considered for the allocation of special diet, but still respond to dietary interventions. For those conditions that are listed, the amount of monies allocated is insufficient. Given that most ODSP recipients pay at least 70% or more of their income for housing alone, it becomes less rational to justify the low rates they are given to meet these costs.
As a taxpayer, I also know the cost of delivering health care is increasing to a point where health care allocations that once took 25% of our provincial spending now takes up almost half. Health care economists have stated in numerous forums that the increase in health care expenditure is not necessarily related to the ageing population, as this factor plays in less than 2% in the amount of increased spending. While part of the increase is also the cost of new pharmaceuticals, it is MY position that the largest part of the cause of increased health care costs rests with the increased burden of poverty. The Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences has already determined that diabetes, for example, is four times more likely to happen to somebody in a lower socioeconomic status than it is for somebody of more comfortable means. Low-income diabetics are also twice as likely as others to suffer from complications of the condition, such as blindness and heart disease.
Over the course of my career, I learned of many hypothetical situations that can be applied to these learnings. For example, it is not unheard of for somebody living on ODSP as a single person in my region to pay more than 75% of their income on housing, sometimes even more. In many cases, that leaves a person on ODSP with less than $100 a month to spend on food, transportation, clothing, health care, etc. If such a person is already diabetic, they are highly vulnerable to complications, such as heart disease. Older, more fragile patients may be referred to live in an assisted-care facility. Because such facilities don’t exist for younger people, they often end up in nursing homes, whereby the health care system now covers the cost of the nursing home (where monthly fees can exceed $3,500 even in a modest facility), the health care itself, plus continue to pay the person their ODSP allowance …
In another hypothetical, a working woman who does not earn enough to cover health care expenses is a fragile diabetic, where genetically, she has inherited a tendency to complications … she does all the right things, sees the right doctors and tries to follow a diet and quits smoking. However, she needs an insulin pump to defray substantial fluctuations in her blood glucose level. It is known that even for a short time if glucose levels are too high, permanent damage can ensue. She becomes too ill to work and because her workplace is not likely to have disability or sickness coverage, she is forced to turn to EI (if she is even eligible) and after that, welfare. Because she is not able to maintain a reasonable diet on OW/ ODSP rates, she becomes very ill and suffers blindness, kidney failure and/or an amputation of her leg. How much would an insulin pump cost the system if it meant this person can continue working and avoid complications? How much would it cost the system to increase the first example’s ODSP rates so that she would be able to eat properly and live independently, as opposed to spending thousands of dollars afterwards on a monthly basis to “maintain her” in a lower quality of existence? When priorities are set for the budget, not only should the costs of doing things be considered (e.g. increasing ODSP rates, broadening coverage for medical devices), but the cost of NOT doing things.
Poverty is expensive. Reducing and eliminating poverty may cost something at first, but over time – savings will be realized as we can then notice there will be reduced costs for urgent and emergency health care, assisted care facilities for younger people, policing (as the vast majority of people convicted of crime are living in poverty), band-aids (as caring for homeless persons does cost upwards of $40,000 a year in Toronto), etc. However, by not reducing poverty and allowing it to flourish, our costs for everything ranging from health care to education to policing and corrections will sharply increase. We only have the U.S. to look to for leadership in this area, where they are building more prisons than they are housing homeless people, while still imposing spiraling taxation on its people.
Many people argue that the best “cure” for poverty is a job.
However, there are many problems with this theory. More and more people have jobs, even more than one job, but they still cannot escape poverty. Other than minimum wages, labour laws do not provide for guarantees of job security, provision of benefits, number of hours and other “measures” of a job that determine the quality of the job. Nor do any laws in our country force any employer to hire any particular person …
Official unemployment statistics are not accurate so far as they do not measure involuntary part-time employment, contract or involuntary “self-employment” or people who have thus far given up looking for a job. I just learned from a friend that she had just lost a job she had for a couple of years and loved … she loved her job so much that her face literally lit up the room whenever she spoke about things she was involved with at her work. She spoke very highly about her employer, until … a new manager came in and decided he no longer liked her and let her go. She is now for the first time in her life on a job hunt in a very economically depressed region of this province. This is what it is like for somebody who is so-called “employable”.
What about those of us who are too old, too young, over-qualified, under-qualified, too disabled, too smart, too reserved, etc. for today’s seemingly competitive job market that rules out all but the most healthy, quickest and youngest of the roost? Does your Government plan to force employers to hire people from among these ‘less desirable’ categories? Because the answer is likely no, I would only demand the alternative – that those who cannot, for whatever reason, find work that pays them enough to meet their basic needs – that a social safety net be available that would provide them enough to support themselves and their families in relative dignity.
As made clear above, the existing social safety net does not do that. In fact, I am privy to a number of people who should not be working (due to a disability) who try to work anyways because our once strong social safety net has since been torn to tatters … and since returning to work, many of these people have been turfed out of their job, forced to quit, become re-injured, or ended up hospitalized as a result of an exacerbation of an illness or disability they have … but cannot get enough money on Ontario Works or ODSP to even cover basic costs, such as housing. How this work or starve mentality benefits employers is beyond me … or even the rest of us that must pay for their injuries, health care and unemployment through our taxes. At the same time, many injured workers try to return to work only to have employers illegally terminate them and WSIB deny benefits to such a point where such a worker ends up having to turn to OW /ODSP for basics. Technically, there are laws in place to protect people, but unfortunately, these same laws are broken again and again to no avail.
If your Government believes a job is the best social policy, then it must do something about jobs. That means:
1. Increase in minimum wage to $10/hour now;
2. Tying ANY government support or subsidy to a living wage policy (meaning that the minimum salary offered must be in itself able to meet all basic needs of a family in the region where the job is offered);
3. Toughening labour standards and enforcement to increase job security and reduce incidence of workplace harassment and bullying – including contracting with so-called staffing agencies;
4. Penalizing employers and company owners for labour law violations in a meaningful way;
5. Improved enforcements of the Human Rights Code (including proactive measures to prevent discrimination from starting in the first place); and
6. Targeted programs where necessary to improve the likelihood of qualified persons with disabilities, older persons, newcomers and others traditionally impacted by job discrimination, in not only obtaining work, but finding work that meets their skills/training/education.
IF all of the above is done in short order, we may expect greater job security for many people not otherwise given it. However, not everybody can work. People may be sick, disabled, or are caregivers to others (children, elderly or disabled persons) and unable to take a job. Others are looking for work and are in between jobs. These people must also have a decent income to resort to. The amount currently received on Ontario Works is shameful and an embarrassment to a wealthy province such as ours. Even ODSP rates are shameful, given that inflation has eroded its value over many years.
Social assistance rates of any kind (OW/ ODSP) must be adjusted to reflect realistic rates for shelter, utilities, telephone, transportation, clothing and a healthy diet, at minimum. Persons who are on ODSP and are either unable to work or have limited options (such as only able to work in a specific field, be self-employed or work only part-time) MUST have an income that not only includes the basics, but also includes enough to cover social costs. It is not pleasant to be a prisoner in your own home. Many people on ODSP in my region do not even have the money for bus fare to go anywhere in the community, let alone pay fees for programs once they get there. For these people, a television set that breaks down is a crisis for them. Most cannot even dream of purchasing new clothes, and often continue to wear old, damaged clothing. I have seen ODSP recipients go without winter clothing in the dead of a January freeze. Many of these people simply layer several sweaters over one another and limit the number of times they leave their homes. A true measurement of reduction of poverty is a substantial decrease in the number of people relying on food banks and emergency shelters, as well as a decrease in the number of food banks and shelters in service anywhere in the province. In my view, nobody in Ontario should be using a food bank or emergency shelter. We should be rescuing animals, not homeless people - because there should be NO homeless people.
Setting rates for OW/ ODSP should be done through an independent process that includes social policy experts, anti-poverty workers and poor people themselves. Politicians are not adequately knowledgeable about how much one needs as a bare minimum to survive … as most politicians come from comfortable backgrounds prior to being elected and after voting themselves a 27% increase last year, certainly know nothing about the availability of low-cost housing in their area or what a basic food basket actually costs an average family. Politicians however can have the political will to work with an independent process and allow significant input by people who actually know the costs of things, as well as the costs of not doing things.
Politicians through this process also need to set targets and make one another, as well as relevant departments accountable for meeting these targets. For example, anti-poverty measures are not only about getting more good-paying jobs and increasing social assistance rates. Anti-poverty measures also include: childcare policy, education policy, availability and cost of local/regional transit options, availability of home ownership, retirement options and access to community amenities.
For example, I live in a Region where politicians don’t feel there are many people that don’t drive. In their view, everybody drives or has “family and friends” to take them places. As a result, our Region’s social class structure is predicated upon whether or not you and your family have access to a personal vehicle. People that do not drive or cannot afford to do so are stuck in low-paying job ghettos – retail, service, call centres – while those that do drive do have access to better paying jobs, where they do exist. This is regardless of your education and skills. I have witnessed situations where high school or college drop-outs were favoured in a job simply because they had a car, over a better educated candidate that didn’t drive. That has to stop – IMMEDIATELY. Unless the job involves driving a taxi, delivering parcels or acting as a door-to-door salesperson, the ownership of a vehicle or driver’s license should be a NON-ISSUE.
In these other areas, priorities for the Anti-Poverty Cabinet should also include (in addition to jobs and increased OW/ODSP assistance rates), the following:
1. Funding for an inter-municipal transit system in Niagara (and similar communities across Ontario) that is accessible, affordable, reliable and convenient – as well as money for improvements in local transit systems;
2. Funding for GO Transit service beyond Hamilton. Niagara is always the “one left out”. Because Niagara has very poor transit policy, we are among the worst communities when it comes to air quality and access. There are too many people living in this Region that have never left their own city because they can’t afford the cab fare to get from one city to the next, nor can they afford the $8,000 or more a year it takes to own and maintain a vehicle on an annual basis. Many of these people cannot find work or work only in marginal jobs, because most jobs require people to own a car.
3. Better access to childcare. This is not just pre-school care, but after-school and school holiday care. If a Government believes the best anti-poverty policy is a job, then they need to help people get to the jobs as well as help people remain in the jobs, esp. if they have children. There are too many school holidays, whereby low-income families cannot afford a nanny or daycare for these school holidays and after school. Otherwise, we see the rise of ‘latch key’ children who are more likely to get into trouble than the children of families that have comfortable incomes and external family support. Not everybody has family members and neighbours that can help them in this way.
4. A different approach to public education. If a child is in a public school, it should cost them ZERO for everything … ranging from textbooks, to lab materials, to art supplies, to school trips, to school dances, etc. This should apply whether the child is from a rich family or a poor family. Children know what social class they are in just by being in school … those that “get sick” on the days of school trips or are “allergic to pizza” on pizza days, are well known to their peers and subject to ostracism. When is this going to stop?
5. Respect for and access to higher education. There are many people on ODSP – some say as many as 1 in 6 ODSP household heads – who are university educated. Why is their employment supports program only geared to helping people into low-paid, dead-end employment? If somebody with a disability is university educated and possibly experienced in a particular field, THESE FOLKS are the ones that should be getting government jobs and other good-paying jobs in their community and be assisted this way. High school drop-outs should not be given access to these jobs, but instead be assisted in their educational and/or vocational training goals, which will eventually steer them into a meaningful career goal.
The Canadian Association of Professionals with Disabilities clearly identifies the marginalization of university educated professionals that have disabling health conditions … they should be seen as potential assets to the looming labour shortage and be steered in the direction of higher paid jobs as close as possible to their fields of education and/or work experience. For those seeking a higher education, OSAP needs to be reviewed to ensure it is accessible to people with low-incomes and/or in receipt of OW/ODSP – it cannot be assumed that people on OW/ ODSP have enough $$ to meet their living expenses while attending school (by disallowing OSAP contributions to the same). Also, work needs to be done to increase access to grants and forgivable loans to people living in poverty.
5. Make the Ontario Child Benefit equally beneficial to working families and families that receive OW/ ODSP. At the current time, the implementation for the OCB is too little, too late. The total amount of income must be increased and social assistance should not be clawed-back or "restructured” in any way to accommodate the Ontario Child Benefit. If working families will benefit by up to $95 per child, so should people on assistance. The clawback of the National Child Benefit cannot be addressed by using another clawback, which leads to people on OW/ ODSP getting yet another clawback to accommodate OCB, and be only marginally better off.
6. Housing/ shelter subsidies. This should be addressed by increasing OW/ ODSP rates and by topping up the income of working poor families to enable them to afford “market rate” shelter, owned or rented. The way of measuring this is to ensure that no individual or family has to dip into the “basic needs” part of the budget or their groceries to pay for housing/utilities.
In summary, if the Ontario Government wants to reduce poverty, it must act more quickly and address the issue more broadly in order for its impact to make a difference. It must address the needs of singles and couples, as well as families – and address the needs of all low-income people better, so the “need for” expensive subsidized housing projects can be reduced – if all people can afford to pay “market” rate – rented or owned.
If the Ontario Government chooses to continue on its existing path, it will not reduce poverty and in fact, with the threat of an oncoming recession, the “poverty problem” may even become worse. In short, I want the Government to define poverty as the national emergency it is and to act accordingly, such as putting immediate priority and resources into its eradication, and to involve anti-poverty groups, social policy experts and poor communities themselves to participate in setting the new agenda. As an independently set agenda, it is removed from the political process, although politicians will also be forced to engage consideration of low-income issues on seemingly unrelated matters, such as energy policy.
Submitted by browneassociates
January 30th, 2008