Saturday, December 06, 2008

As economic hard times take hold, especially in the province of Ontario, so dependant upon manufacturing jobs that are fast disappearing, the present Liberal government of that province holds fast to its outdated strategy to deal with poverty. The following article from the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) tells how this is a losing strategy.
The Economic Crisis Will Lead To A Social Assistance Crisis:
How Ontario's Poverty Reduction Strategy Will Fail‏:
As more plants close and the markets continue to fall, there is consensus on the economic future for the province of Ontario: more job losses and recession. Ontario’s last recession took place in the early 1990s -thousands of people from across the province migrated to Toronto in search of work and services that smaller communities offer little of, such as shelters, drop-in centres, meal programs, and outreach workers. Most people who came to Toronto found shelters well beyond capacity, social services over-taxed, and a stingy, overloaded welfare bureaucracy staggering under a caseload of 100,000.
City Councillor Joe Mihevc, who until recently oversaw the committee responsible for welfare, has said of Toronto: “We're not Oshawa. We're not Windsor. A lot of our employment seems to be holding, so we may dodge this.” This position is a pathetic attempt to downplay the looming crisis. Some manufacturing workers who live in Toronto and work in Oshawa have already lost their jobs. With layoffs in the works for the Big Three auto-makers, as well as their parts manufacturers, many more people in this city will soon be unemployed. But this crisis isn't just about cars and parts - Toronto is the financial capital of the country and if the economy gets worse, we will face massive unemployment. We aren't saying that brokers and bankers will end up on welfare – government bailouts and generous bonuses and severances will ensure that won't happen. But we are saying that their assistants, support staff, janitors, waiters, hairdressers and nannies may well find themselves in need of social assistance. From Bay Street, the crisis will ripple outwards across the City.
Massive unemployment and an influx of poor people forced into the city will fill our shelters – shelters that are already overcrowded. We could also see an increase in the welfare caseload of thousands of people, or more likely, tens of thousands. Five years ago, the City could have weathered this economic storm by relying upon the welfare reserve fund – a pot of money kept aside to deal with dramatic increases in welfare rolls.
However, since David Miller came to power, this fund has decreased from $94.4 million to about $8 million. The reserve fund will last for one month with an increased caseload of 14,000 single people. Joe Mihevc has conceded that there is “a potential ticking time bomb within the operating budget”, if the City doesn’t successfully “dodge this”.
Given the current economic situation, we are likely to see that time bomb explode. If the reserve fund only lasts for a brief period, it will be devastating for many people on welfare in Toronto. The City will go out of its way to make it difficult or impossible to get on welfare. People will be cut off for the smallest violations and for not looking for work hard enough in a City where there is no work. Discretionary benefits, currently paid for by the City but which they are not obligated to cover, will be immediately cut. This means, for example, that transportation money for volunteering on which thousands of people on welfare and ODSP already rely will be eliminated. The welfare bureaucracy will also turn its passive campaign to deny people the Special Diet Benefit, a provision that currently pours a much-needed $30 million a year into poor people’s pockets in Toronto,into an overt policy of refusal.
Already, workers are refusing to issue or accept Special Diet forms, forcing people to turn over access of their private medical files, and denying the benefit on illegal grounds. But don't worry, the Province's new “Poverty Reduction Strategy” will ensure that none of this actually happens right? Wrong. The Poverty Reduction Strategy announced this week has been scaled down from a “poverty reduction strategy” to a “child poverty reduction strategy”.
Single people on welfare and disability will see no benefit whatsoever from the new plan. The strategy claims it will reduce child poverty by 25% in 5 years but, people on social assistance will continue to get poorer. The Province has also announced a review of social assistance, and we do not yet know what changes could come down the road. Already, parents on ODSP and Ontario Works get almost no extra money through the Ontario Child Benefit, although for parents forced to work minimum wage jobs, the OCB can make a financial difference. The OCB provides a top up to the worst employers by providing a child benefit for the working poor out of the tax base so the employers can avoid paying living wages.
In addition, the gap between the welfare poor and working poor will be increased to pressure more people into low paying jobs. But this deeply flawed child poverty reduction plan will never work if it revolves around the premise that parents on social assistance will get jobs - we are in a recession and no one is hiring. Rather than, in the words of some co-opted poverty advocates, “turning a corner on poverty,” the Provincial government has itself acknowledged that the Reduction Strategy will fail in the current economic climate:
“Ontario will undertake to meet this target. However, we cannot meet this goal without a strong federal partner and a growing economy.” The Poverty Reduction Strategy offers almost no new money, acknowledges that it will not be successful given the current economic situation and does nothing for people living in poverty who are not parents. In fact, a number of the “new” programs outlined have already been announced or implemented, and others, like the $970 million in funding for construction and equipment in post-secondary institutions, do nothing to address poverty reduction.
Investing in kids to “break the cycle of poverty” in fifteen or twenty years is not enough. A real poverty reduction strategy would also put real money in people's hands immediately. Those of us on assistance, or who will be on assistance when their EI runs out, cannot afford to simply cross our fingers and hope that the economic crisis will lead to enough deflation to make up for the 21.6% cut and a decade of inflation.
We need action now. We need a 40% increase in welfare and ODSP. We need an immediate $10 minimum wage and for it to continue to increase. We need decent, affordable, accessible housing. We need a real anti-poverty strategy, one that that benefits all poor people.

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