The Toronto Star reports the province anticipates having to deal with a $24.5 billion dollar deficit. Politicians go to the press to tell people not to worry because all lines in health and education will be protected, but government will be seeking "efficiencies" elsewhere. In the meantime, prior to Christmas a mean-spirited Auditor General's Report came out slamming the provincial government for neglecting over $600 million in over-payments, interspersing this discussion with value statements about alleged fraud, and more directly pointing out how the special diet program was vulnerable to fraud. A later article by Catherine Porter of the Toronto Star interviewed the mysterious doctor identified in the audit as signing off hundreds of diet forms to get the maximum for his patients.
In light of both announcements, the clinic community, as well as anti-poverty activists have become concerned about just what this government is planning to do with social assistance rates, which have been miserly and punitive for a very long time, and have not yet quite caught up to the standard since former Premier Harris took a hacksaw to them in 1995. The unfortunate issue is when the story first broke out in the media, many of the newspaper sites allow comments from readers and as a progressive moderate, I resented many of their attitudes. Groups like the Income Security Advocacy Centre and the broader coalition, 25in5 have attempted to stand up against the backlash deliberately invoked by these articles.
In the original article, which most of the comments are based upon, Madeleine Meilleur, Minister of Community & Social Services, has stated to the media that she has indeed referred over 2,500 cases to the police. Whether or not this was done, or what the actual results of this referral will produce, the picture of social assistance that was just generated by the Minister's words has blackballed all of those that are on it, particularly those that have applied for and received extra benefits, including the special diet. At the same time, the Minister announces her appointment of a group of people to review social assistance. I know many of the people involved, as I am involved in the clinic groups (though I am not involved with legal clinics - I just have a private practice and a major concern about what this world is becoming), as well as have been involved in other movements where others on the committee have been also involved.
It is not the composition per se that brings me great concern. I have a great deal of respect for the clinic representatives, as well as the two career policy analysts that have a clue about how these policies work and what can happen if they are tweaked here and tweaked there. In fact, John Stapleton has written about the intersection of social assistance policy and housing policy, and how this literally traps people into poverty. Affordable housing advocates want to gloss over this, but if we want change, we need to review this element as well. The two foundation representatives are also connected to many of our coalition members, so I feel safe with a majority of them. I am sure like anybody else, they will all collectively work on proposals they feel that the government should be putting in. They appear committed to pushing for a broad-based review with a province-wide audience and input, as time goes on. I just have concerns when advisory groups like this are headed by a Food Bank representative. I am sure this person is a good person, active in the community and concerned, but in my experience, food banks have not pushed strongly enough for adequacy of benefits and appeared to accept the Ontario Child Benefit unconditionally, even when presented with the fact that social assistance families are cut back in order to get this benefit, often resulting in no net income increase, or just a few dollars per month.
But what is scary to me is that the Auditor's Report was published at or about the same time the announcement was made to set up the social assistance reform advisory council, as we learned they were referred to on a formal basis. While I can't see the new advisory group pushing to eliminate the special diet, the government may choose to do so anyways, as part of its "review" of all programs and to increase "efficiencies" in the programs it delivers. Further, I do see some flexibility in allowing ODSP and OW recipients to keep more of the monies they earn, but this will done in exchange for a compromise. I can see recipients losing the $100 work allowance. I am one to act as the conscience of a group, reminding others that governments are not there to give us anything, because low income people mean nothing to them. As somebody once stated on the odspfireside group I co-moderate with two other brilliant analysts/activists, low income people vote far less than those of middle and upper incomes. Why should politicians care what you think if they are not going to get a vote anyways?
Personally I would love to be part of the long-term group, as well as participate in inter-ministerial discussions. Poverty is not just the domain of the Ministry of Community and Social Services; it is the domain of many Ministries, including health, education, transportation, children and youth services, municipal affairs and housing, finance, etc. However, much of this is going on in isolation like these things usually do. Maybe the Ministry of Community and Social Services will come up with some great proposals, but subsidized housing rules don't change and continue to trap people there. Or municipalities aren't forced into considering the need for alternative forms of transportation to the car, and to set standards with employers to make sure they park their businesses on transit lines ... Niagara Region was coveted by a couple of large employers recently, including Canada Bread, which was seeking a location well served by transit as well as the highway, and when it discovered Niagara doesn't believe in transit (as its own religious discourse continues to worship the automobile), Canada Bread moved to Hamilton. This is a source of frustration for transit advocates in Niagara, whose voice is large, but largely ignored in Niagara due to the automobile dominance.
Niagara Region had its chance, after forty years of studying, debating and researching the idea of regional transit, to put it into place by September 2010, by putting an acceptable staged question to the municipalities on January 28, 2010, but have chosen not to. I suppose the 40% of the operating budget and capital budget spent on roads, parking and so forth alone, from the region's pot will pass without any debate, but those who don't drive will either continue to use taxis at exorbitant prices, or do without access to decent employment. What again particularly bothers me are the comments in these publications online, whereby persons, obviously drivers, that don't think we should be spending any money on transit, while it is perfectly okay for well-educated persons in Niagara to remain on welfare for months or years at a time because there are no jobs for non-drivers in Niagara. Penny-wise, but pound foolish.
After all, there is a huge $24.5 billion deficit and somebody has to get hit. No, we cannot touch the rich people's wallets, as then we are attacking investments and they will move their plants elsewhere. We can't hit the middle class because their earning power is affected. We have to side swipe the poor once again. Let's cut social services, cut welfare, eliminate the special diet, delay or cancel transit projects, etc. and let's see what will happen. The province has promised to protect health care and education after all, and let us see how much more money is going to be poured into these sectors, simply because a child cannot learn on an empty stomach, and because adults cannot stay healthy when they have no money to pay for healthy food. I spent all weekend with cold sores in my mouth because I don't always eat properly, and had to treat them.
These same governments, by appointing the province's largest food bank to head off the social assistance review is giving us a message: food banks will be part of our social infrastructure forever, and perhaps, at some point will get government funding. Why not take the food out of our kids' mouths and give it to the food banks that currently pay their directors a healthy salary? Didn't Graham Riches tell us that food banks, which started for the very first time in Edmonton in the early 1980's, that they are only there for a short time and want to terminate their own existence? However, the opposite has happened. We are now overwhelmed with charities, many of which were reporting that they failed to get enough to cover their increased needs over the holiday season. I always said we cannot rely upon the charity and goodwill of people, as this ebbs and flows, and is limited. Further, it creates a further divide between those that give, and those that receive, and with the somewhat long-term effects of the current recession, the chances that a receiver will return to being a giver are slim.
All of this is here because Ministers chose to hear the bleating of auto makers, banks, forestry industry representatives and some others, who were subsidized or simply bailed out entirely, while not paying attention to the social bottom line. After $16 billion to the automakers, $50 billion in tax cuts to the large corporations, $25 billion to the banks, etc., are we actually any better off? Newspaper reports say the number of people on employment insurance are falling, but is the number of unemployed going down with it? At the other end, there are double digit increases in the number of people applying for social assistance, many of whom are forced to give up their homes, their cars and anything else, whereby they will likely see poverty for a long time. Now, tell us, politicians and business leaders, how does this benefit our country?