Concerns: Unacceptable Poverty Levels in Ontario —

It is estimated by Statistics Canada that over two million people (14.3 per cent) in Ontario live in poverty. This figure is based on a poverty level established at 50 per cent of the median Canadian household income and is called the Low-Income Measure.

Among the poorest of the poor are people on social assistance. The two main social assistance programs in the province are Ontario Works (OW) and the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP). OW is described by the Ontario government as providing income support to people requiring financial assistance to cover costs of basic needs and providing employment assistance. It is considered a punitive program which is hard to access and whose recipients are harassed and deprived of benefits when they do not participate in government employment programs. Individuals on OW are forced to participate irrespective of their concrete situation. The ODSP program provides financial assistance and health-related benefits to people with disabilities who need help with living expenses.

As of March 2018, there were 453,366 beneficiaries of OW benefits and 502,650 beneficiaries of ODSP benefits, a total of over 955,000 individuals. A single person on OW receives $721 a month, while a single person on ODSP receives $1,151 a month. In 2016, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives did a study, based on 2014 data, on what it called the poverty gap for people on social assistance. This is the distance between a person’s benefit income and the poverty line. They found out that the poverty gap for a single people on OW was 59 per cent (i.e., their income was only 41 per cent of what was needed to just reach the poverty line); 35 per cent for a single parent on OW, 38 per cent for a couple with two children on OW, 33 per cent for a single adult on ODSP and 11 per cent for a single parent with one child on ODSP. These two “social assistance” programs condemn recipients to living at virtually a starvation level.

This unacceptable situation has been going on for a very long time. The most dramatic attack on the poor happened in 1995 when the Conservative government of Mike Harris cut welfare rates by 21.6 per cent (the program that became Ontario Works) and froze ODSP rates. Since then, both rates have been systematically either frozen or, when increased, not increased to match the rate of inflation. Social assistance recipients have sunk further into poverty.

This impoverishment has been accompanied by a brutal ideological assault on the recipients of social assistance, who are some of the most vulnerable members of society. They are vilified as a drain on the economy, not human beings with rights who are part of an Ontario that must guarantee a Canadian standard of living for all, a modern society in which the social wealth produced by the workers supports social programs that allow everyone to live with dignity. This requires that decision-making power is vested in the people. The increased exploitation of the working class, which maintains and increases this level of poverty, shows clearly the need to change the direction of the economy to one which is human-centred, not one which guarantees profits for private interests.

The Raise the Rates Coalition has for years been demanding changes that would improve the situation. It is putting forward demands such as the immediate increase of social assistance rates to at least 75 per cent of the poverty line, plus cost of living adjustments; a stop to cuts to benefits and supports; the elimination of punitive surveillance as part of the administration of social assistance; access to social assistance for immigrants regardless of their immigration status. The coalition is also calling for the amendment of the Employment Standards Act to ensure that the minimum wage in Ontario (scheduled to increase to $15 an hour by January 1, 2019) includes students and liquor servers.

In this election, people do not want more pledges, more studies, reports, “poverty reduction strategies” and pilot projects from political parties. Ontario requires immediate measures to alleviate the situation of people on social assistance and disability, as part of the work to provide all Ontarians with living conditions at a Canadian standard. Ontario also requires a change in the direction of the economy to make the motive of production human-centred, not geared to pay the rich.

Pierre Chénier, Ontario Political Forum