Tuesday, December 30, 2008
THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING SAFETY NET:
As the economic crisis deepens the province of Ontario seems to be the hardest hit. Just as it is most needed governments, including that of Ontario, seem determined to make the safety net less useful to those who find themselves in the ranks of the poor. Here's an analysis of the matter from the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP).
Poverty Reduction Gets Reduced:
In 1995, just before the Harris Government cut social assistance rates by 21.6%, the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty marched from the low-income community of Regent Park into affluent Rosedale. The impending welfare cut and Provincial tax breaks would soon transfer about $1 million a month from one community to the other. Replicated across Ontario, this vast transfer of wealth to the already wealthy was at the very heart of the ‘Common Sense Revolution’. Initiatives around poverty that ignore this continuing injustice are of very limited value.
Last week, a report was issued by the National Council of Welfare on the undermining of provincial income support systems since the early 1990s. Written well into the McGuinty Government’s second term of office, the report makes clear that Ontario has lead the way in the deterioration of income adequacy for people on assistance. It is from this dismal starting point that the Government of this Province issues its proposals to address the problem.
‘Poverty reduction’ in Ontario is part of an international trend that has developed after at least three decades of deregulation and social cutbacks. It focuses on patching up some of the worst and most destabilizing impacts while leaving in place, and even securing, hugely increased levels of inequality.
The report just issued by Ontario’s Minister of Children and Youth, Deb Matthews, fits into this pattern. Rather tellingly, it is entitled ‘Breaking the Cycle’ and declares that the problem is to be found in ‘intergenerational poverty’. This dubious conclusion is used to justify an approach of ‘putting children first’. Those who see challenging poverty as a public relations exercise regard concentrating on ‘child poverty’ as a tactical necessity for the obvious reason that children are the ultimate representatives of the ‘deserving poor’. For those designing regressive social policy, however, this approach is extremely useful, as we see in the present proposals.
Any right thinking person is outraged when children grow up in poverty. For this very reason, a dubious undertaking to make sure that ‘the kids are alright’ can cover up a lot of social injustice. Single adults, who have actually fallen the furthest behind, are not considered in the Matthews report. Any limited restoration of lost social assistance income is to be delivered in the form of a special benefit for children. In assessing this, three elements stand out very clearly.
Firstly, measured up against a decade and a half of income loss, the allocation to children is astoundingly inadequate. By 2012, a single parent family of three is predicted to be 35% better off than in 2003. People were already living in poverty in 1995 when Harris cut their income by 21.6%. Thirteen years of inflation, offset only by very small increases in the last period, have made that situation much worse. These measures, viewed at their best, are a selective and partial return of what has been previously removed.
The second aspect to consider is an increased inequality even for children living on social assistance. The report acknowledges that a single parent family receiving the minimum wage will see an increase in their income that is significantly higher than a family on assistance. The level of welfare payments is to fall even further behind the lowest paying jobs on offer, even for people with children. The working poor are to receive a somewhat better (though still inadequate) income through a payment to their children that is really a de facto wage top up to those employers who fail to pay a living wage.
The third question is the extreme fragility of these measures. They are presented as a pledge to reduce child poverty by 25% over 5 years but some caution is needed here. The importance is stressed of federal co-operation and of ‘a growing economy’ if goals are to be met. Given the developments of the last few months, that’s a bit like being offered a car that will run fine provided it doesn’t break down.
In mentioning the state of the economy, the Matthew’s report comes face to face with its own personal Banquo’s Ghost. The developing international economic downturn creates an entirely new context in which to consider poverty in Ontario. In this Province, a severe loss of better paying jobs in the industrial sector had taken a massive toll even before the astounding crisis of the markets flowed into the real economy. We are facing a situation that will have, as one of its central features, a very serious increase in the numbers of people experiencing or facing poverty. That’s why the proposals in this report must now be judged from an entirely different standpoint from how they may have been viewed a few months ago.
This downturn will soon expose the sad fact that the systems of social provision that might have afforded protection have been fundamentally compromised. A shaky pledge to do some small things over five years is desperately short of what’s needed. To go into a major economic crisis with a system of social assistance that will not enable people to pay their rent and feed themselves is a recipe for disaster. Have our expectations been so driven down that we would accept such a thing? A 40% increase in welfare rates would return us only to the levels that existed before Harris did his work. We can demand nothing less and accept nothing less.
**Ontario Coalition Against Poverty
10 Britain St.