Posted by Amy MacPherson
(Originally published by Open Government projects and universities in 2010, but mainstream media wasn’t interested in the topic to amend for newspaper format.)
Poverty is a growing epidemic in the province of Ontario, costing us billions of dollars across a wide range of government ministries. Normally we hear critiques focused on philosophy, program names and groups of people; but while many debate the grander principles, I’d like to discuss the finer points. No matter anyone’s focus on reducing poverty, there still remains great conflict in the way we deliver patchwork service and agendas. It is through a collaboration of competing interests, motivations and tunnel vision that cycles of dependency are born and further nurtured by our oversight. The following is an overview of these conflicts and their impacts on society. We mustn’t downplay its importance, for this is the very foundation upon which all else is built.
1. Public assistance rates – Are calculated in accordance with the inflation level of 1995. In 16 years the amounts allotted for rent, utilities and food have not been adjusted to address current reality.
2. Ontario Works and ODSP lost frontline funding for children – When the Ontario Child Benefit was created, the Basic Needs portion of public assistance was literally clawed back to zero, for anyone under the age of eighteen. Welfare no longer provides food, clothes, personal care or school supplies to children. Under the new funding module, the government expects families to access this income via tax returns (OCB), in theory to make it more accessible (ex. working poor).
However, the “new” groups were only accounted for by taking directly from our most vulnerable. At the end of the day, those on public assistance saw an average increase of $1 – $19 while working families gained closer to $350 per month.
3. The recession – Placed a considerable amount of new clients into our social welfare system. The middle class has been chipping away but the last few years have made a stunning impact on the gap between rich and poor.
4. Housing inflation – Has been uncontrollable since our move to a market fetching system. This practice makes it near impossible for low income families to afford living anywhere at all. The vast majority of those on public assistance only receive enough to pay the rent with their entire month’s income. The same is true of many working minimum wage, part time, contract and seasonal positions.
5. Near abandonment of subsidized housing – Has been the norm as counties see little incentive to invest in this protection of community. This is an issue that’s been placed in local hands, where the greatest bias has the potential to exist, conflicts of interest and no motivation to act charitably.
6. Total abandonment of the Poverty Reduction Strategy – Painstaking consultations were procured by government, remedies were put in place, promises were made, but very little has been enacted. Here’s a copy of that mandate:
7. Uninspiring wage penalties via OW and ODSP – The public assistance system has been revised countless times, in the name of progress and yet always at a cost to its recipients. The current method actually deters people from working and sets up an atmosphere of all or nothing. It also divides families believe it or not.
Anyone on welfare who obtains employment pays deductions from their monthly allowance. In the case of ODSP, a client will pay the same taxes, EI premiums, CPP contributions and union dues just like anyone else. They are further penalized 50% from their gross earned wages by ODSP in the following month, so they’ve lost well over 75% of their take-home pay by the time government is done.
Ontario Works is worse yet. The client pays all taxes like everyone else and then faces 100% deduction of gross pay, thereby leaving them with even less than if they hadn’t worked. This happens for the first 4 months and if the client has managed to maintain the same position for consecutive months, they will finally be converted to the 50% deduction schedule.
If children in these low income families attempt employment (even part time at McDonald’s during high school) it will be considered family income. They will face the same deductions as their parents and be forced to support the adults in their family. Therefore we can assume they will never be able to save up for a class trip, extra curricular activity or proper clothing.
While it’s not entirely a provincial issue, recipients of CPP Disability are only allowed to make $4200 per year without being disqualified from benefits. This speaks for a great amount of mentally ill, terminally ill and physically challenged persons. If they manage to recover for a period of time and make an effort to seek employment, they may find themselves abandoned from support and forced into the regular welfare system.
In any event, all methods discourage participants from working, as they stand to receive less income for even trying. And so the cycle is born.
8. No access to social care – Exists in smaller communities. These “towns” account for the majority of Ontario and struggle with lacking support systems. Most do not have a domestic violence centre or transportation to one. They don’t have soup kitchens, Out of the Cold programs, parenting courses, child counseling or a host of other interventionist measures. They also don’t have community resource agencies connecting them with information and referral. In cities with better access there are waiting lists and countless thousands turned away.
Complications and Mounting Costs:
1. Cost of living is insurmountable – And has resulted in numerous consequences. When incomes don’t nearly reflect basic expenses, we find our vulnerable population living on the very fringe of existence. The onus of getting families by has been placed on the shoulders of charity and grassroots, who are not capable of being responsible for an entire province alone.
The Winter Warmth program runs out of funds in its first month every year for the last 3 years running (locally). This means anyone who is facing heat disconnection will have to go without if they didn’t apply for help by the end of December.
The Barrie, ON food bank recently invested in a warehouse twice the size because it can’t keep up with local demand. They’re serving 21,000 families per year and turning away an average of 800 per month. Smaller communities have to export their poor to the nearest urban centre because they are isolated from support in the vast in-between. In the meantime, small town food banks appeal to their municipalities for thousands more when their cupboards run bare:
(Watch at 9:25 for newscast on food banks & 10:13 for confirmation of amount without service)
We know 100% of income is going to shelter in many cases and the only sustenance families receive comes from the food bank. Except these supplies weren’t designed to last more than a week and records show around 1/3rd of visitors are children and 1/3rd are senior citizens. Many people think food bank users are lazy or spend their money on drugs, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Here’s a copy of an especially thorough report titled The Cost of Poverty. It was written by the Ontario Association of Food Banks at the end of 2008 and is the first study of its kind to tie the majority of elements together. They’ve calculated poverty-induced, health related costs at $2.9 billion alone. They find our methods of ignoring poverty come with a price tag of $13.1 billion annually, which trickles down to $2895 per Ontario household.
The report goes on to look at the characteristics of our system and determines 45.4% of single mothers struggled with poverty in 2001. But the recession has since hit our economy and numbers have only skyrocketed. Whereas minorities might have been able to secure available part time positions, today the competition is fierce. At the time, 40% of Ontario’s disabled were skimping by at the lowest possible income quintile as well:
2. Ontario children no longer have access to emergency food, clothing or personal care– Since basic needs were removed from the public assistance structure, there is no ability to provide them with immediate support outside of foster care. This is forcing countless families to remain in abusive situations.
Here is a prime example: A husband and wife or common law couple has children together. She’s a stay-at-home mom and he earns a good wage at $80K per year. They don’t qualify for the Ontario Child Benefit together when claiming income tax.
The husband is abusive however and the mom enters a shelter with her children. She technically has no income and applies to Ontario Works so they can find a home and begin rebuilding, until she can develop skills and secure employment.
Because the Ontario Child Benefit (OCB) and National Child Benefit Supplement (NCBS) are processed by Canada Revenue Agency (CRA), mom will have to file for separation from her husband and 6 months to a year must pass before the government accepts their new family structure. Even so, it may take longer before a full year’s income tax will reflect what she’s entitled to, as CRA calculates from the year prior. Countless months will pass before this newly single parent will be able to access “baby bonus” (to provide food for her children) and she may feel she is not able to afford leaving the situation.
In the meantime the only contingency is what’s called the Transitional Child Benefit (TCB), administered by public assistance. A client must first prove they’re not entitled to baby bonus which can take months in itself. Welfare can then loan $189 per month to make up for the shortfall. If the family receives money from any source in the future (child support order, baby bonus, inheritance, insurance, EI, gifts), they will have to repay the amount “borrowed” in full however.
This was the most oppressive policy against children in recent memory. Taking funds from the frontlines put them directly in harm’s way and more than 350,000 kids had to line up under a Salvation Army sign for dinner last year. In rural communities they don’t even have that.
The Children’s Aid Society has also seen an influx of calls. As mentioned, when a family can’t provide the necessities of life, the state has an obligation to step in. Here is the Canadian Bar Association’s depiction of the overload. It also illuminates a lack of access to Legal Aid. Since that program was clawed back it added even more complication:
3. Social Services require complete loss of all worth before stepping in – This has only taken the recession and made it worse. Countless families are trying to cope with job loss and the death of our traditional manufacturing sector. They’re running out of EI benefits now. They’ve missed as many payments as possible before the bank gets cranky and we’re standing at the precipice of foreclosure due to unpaid property tax (normally spanning 3 years of non payment).
These are oftentimes educated people who were directly impacted by illness or a cutthroat economy. A former Director from Queen’s University befell the same fate, demoted from an executive lifestyle to homelessness because of disability:
We expect them to sell their homes and live off the proceeds until there is truly nothing left. They must be near a state of bankruptcy before public assistance will qualify anyone. This policy destabilizes the population directly, at a time when it is trying desperately to rebuild and reinvent itself. An Ontario mother and former Bell executive explains in her own words:
4. Homelessness is frighteningly on the rise – Families carry the highest rate of homelessness today. There was a 51% increase in those housed at shelters and a 60% increase of children taken into foster care “as a direct result of housing deficiencies”. If only I could surround those numbers in neon lights to grab your attention.The Registered Nurses Association of Ontario offers a more concise look at the characteristics of this situation:
In areas outside the city, we don’t have Out of the Cold programs or shelters, nor can any low income family technically afford market rent. The only alternative is hospitalization to the tune of $2500+ per month:
5. Affordable housing is not a priority for municipalities – A good example is Collingwood, ON who just disbanded their housing committee, or Toronto who suggests getting out of the business entirely. Placing subsidized options in the hands of municipalities makes it hard to convince one neighbour to dish out the $2895 to support the fellow next door (amount of tax burden per household). Despite any government subsidy, this is what the situation amounts to and why we’ve lost so many units. From 1995 to 2003 the affordable market cut 127,680 offerings while 158,456 families joined the waiting list. Since the recession we’ve only seen more needing assistance and a brazen unwillingness to respond:
Please view the attitude Ontario’s most vocal mayor is sharing with his constituents (26 sec):
Just today a new report was released by the reputable Wellesley Institute to confirm the federal government is quashing affordable housing of every type as well. They’re cutting another 50,000 spaces in addition to dissolving the home repairs fund. This means families who manage to find an abode will be forced to live in dilapidated conditions and the cuts will be unanimous by every level of government:
6. Forsaking the Ontario Poverty Reduction Strategy – Is destroying the base by which we can be measured. When contemplating the economic recovery of Ontario, we must consider our reputation to business. Our statistics dropped so dramatically that we were rebuked by UNICEF and the UN. Canadian children are worse off for shelter, food and clothing than those in Portugal or the Czech Republic:
In 2007 we ranked 15th and have since fallen to 17th place. In more detailed categories like family relationships we sadly scored dead-last. Hopefully these are warning signs the good people of Ontario will take to heart:
7. Our poverty help system is punitive in nature – Promoting patterns of absolute breakdown and continued dependency. “Zero Dollar Linda’s” story went viral amongst health and social work groups and she’s a perfectly good example of this conundrum:
Adding to the confusion is the method in which we collect deductions from public assistance. When a recipient of OW or ODSP works in March they will report their earnings before the end of the month. The penalty won’t be taken until April 30th however. This delay only leaves a client vulnerable if they can’t maintain the status quo. This happens frequently to seasonal, temp and disabled workers, where an entire month will have to lapse before their family could receive support. It doesn’t matter if they paid bills or lived responsibly. The qualifier is going 30 days without any income first. And by the time benefits are reinstated, the family is already receiving disconnection notices. This will result in being a month behind for the rest of the entire year.
We have threatened our most vulnerable population in the most intimate of ways. They must live without food, shelter and without their children for trying to make the climb out of poverty. Their health and stability will be affected and the cost of putting kids in state care is astronomically greater than providing the basics to their parents.
8. Isolating communities from social support – Turns early intervention opportunities into full blown emergencies. When a woman can’t seek counseling for domestic violence or information about getting out; this can result in terrible injuries, police, court involvement and tremendous cost to public agencies. According to the OPP these charges have doubled since the recession.
When a wayward parent can’t access a Triple P parenting program (the gold standard in correcting discipline issues, promoted by every regional health unit), an issue that could have been resolved with education may grow into child abuse.
When they can’t access Legal Aid they end up in a holding cell for 6 months for stealing a loaf of bread. And when they can’t access counseling for their troubled children, they too grow up through the court system instead. Despite the social safety we’re so proud of, it’s not within reach for Ontario’s in-between places. Our services have eroded so far that they’re only offered in larger cities.
Strategies to Make a Real Difference:
1. Establish the $100 Healthy Food Benefit – As outlined at PutFoodInTheBudget.ca, this would directly infuse our most vulnerable households with an increase in groceries. It must be calculated per person and would make sense to expand to children. It should also come with protections so no corresponding clawbacks could defeat the purpose (ex. further deductions from the Basic Needsportion of public assistance cheques).
2. A strong commitment to affordable housing – Is imperative to avert an epidemic in homelessness, especially that of families who constitute the heart of a stable society.
3. Put children’s Basic Needs back in frontline funding – And enable families to deal with their own fundamental survival. By canceling coverage through Ontario Works and ODSP offices, we knowingly oppress our own kids from eating for months at a time. The Ontario Child Benefit did nothing to alleviate our most poor and put them in greater danger, just because of how the program is administered. This is hardly different from Third World countries where residents obtain “rations” from federal government and aid agencies now. It also goes a long way to explain the troubling spike in young food bank visitors.
The Ontario Child Benefit may provide relief at the end of a tax year, but it doesn’t help with the onset of an emergency. In fact, 5% of eligible, low income families haven’t managed to access “baby bonus” at all. This means imperative funds are diverted to government coffers to collect interest, while more and more children go without. It’s also a good indicator that federal management of our provincial poverty initiatives is strikingly ineffective.
4. Increase public assistance rates to reflect current inflation – 16 years of tax and rate increases have gone by without recognition. Back in those days gas sold for 45 cents a liter and bread was 49 cents a loaf. Today those amounts have tripled and they’re only going up. Most families are afraid to even mention the word hydro. It’s just not possible to afford basic staples in the present market with a pay schedule from 1995. With respect, I feel this expectation is rather curious.
5. Restructure the way deductions are taken from public assistance recipients – So the program will encourage families to make more frequent attempts at employment opportunities and allow them to contribute to their own support in a fair and just manner. Remarkably, no one else in Canada pays a higher rate of combined “taxes”, penalties and deductions. No other group of children is required to support their parents either. By deducting 100% of children’s wages, we only teach them not to participate in the workforce. And so the cycle continues.
6. Provide reasonable access to childcare – And maintain full day kindergarten. Canada has one of the lowest birthrates, producing only 1.5 children per household. The biggest part of the problem is mom and dad can’t afford to raise a family. The average cost of daycare is $200 – $300 per week, per child and that’s over half a family’s income in many cases. So if childcare is $1000 per month, rent is $900, hydro $200 and groceries at $500; the couple would have to earn $5200 per month to surpass the Low Income Measure. This doesn’t account for telephone, internet, tv, vehicle, bus pass, insurance, personal needs or clothes. If they add a second child to their home they will have to boost their income to $7200 per month to live without risk of homelessness or hunger. If one of them fell sick for 2 weeks it would be enough to put the family unit in danger. By comparison, the most this family would receive from welfare is $1062 if times ever got tough. (The LIM suggests spending 50% of income to cover basic needs is too uncertain. To qualify for a mortgage banks stipulate these expenses can only account for 30%.)
Childcare is the Achilles Heel of every working family, but it poses the greatest barrier to those still looking for a job. This is the future of Ontario and we need to invest in its care more wisely.
7. Allow those on public assistance to apply for student loans – otherwise we have yet another cog in the cycle of dependency. Any person has a greater chance of employability with education and again, this is the only group barred from equal access. If they accept a student loan for books and course fees, they will become disqualified from Ontario Works and ODSP for food and shelter in return. This particular discrepancy contributed to the death of a Sudbury, ON woman:
By denying education to the impoverished we are only teaching future generations the same, unengaged behaviour. We also prevent a great number of disabled persons from a life of productivity, showing them barriers instead of a method to overcome them. We take ready minds, able bodies and shut them down instead of providing the tools to flourish and earn returns for our province. Then society points fingers and claims this group made a choice not to participate, when some of them have literally died trying.
8. Implement a Guaranteed Annual Income strategy – For all adults, not just senior citizens. This method has proven successful with the target group and a past pilot project in Dauphin, Manitoba produced the same results for families in poverty:
Dr. Evelyn Forget conducted the study on behalf of government with the Canadian Institutes of Health Research from 1974 – 1979. Despite its success however, politics and economy of the day brought a swift end to poverty reduction concerns. This option has been debated for 30 years by members of every political party and Conservative Senator Hugh Segal is the Guaranteed Annual Income’s most current proponent:
While I understand there are drawbacks to implementing such an overhaul, the payback is worth its weight in gold and healthcare. The latter raises particular concern when we consider changes to Ontario (and Canada) demographics on the horizon. In the near future 1/3rd of our population will have to support the remaining 2/3rd of aged residents. The older group will be subject to a higher rate of illness while the younger workforce won’t have access to pensions or benefits for their own growing families.
We have to expect some bumps in the road and making it impossible for the working class to recover from challenges will be at our own peril. Food, utilities and shelter have become precious luxuries already. Add the cost of carrying the majority of our population with the smaller, remaining tax base and compound that with 50% – 100% deductions from gross wages, along with no childcare and we have a recipe for disaster. At the end of the day a Guaranteed Annual Income appears to be the most successful answer to circumvent countless oppressive policies, encourage productivity and maintain the health of families as they take on this daunting, historical task.
9. Promote a provincial structure to provide community resource in rural areas – This will make great strides in coping with isolation. With the least amount of dollars we can accomplish the most good, by making our social safety net accessible to a larger audience.
This would require a parent body to oversee grassroots providers in smaller populations, where they could tap into core programs essential to their communities. They may include parenting courses, educational material in elder issues or other staples of community support.
Community resource acts as a satellite for information and referral. It is often early intervention in a wide array of social challenges and saves a heavy burden on more expensive responses like 911, OPP, ER, CAS and the court system. It’s a vessel to solutions and a catalyst of self sufficiency when residents are faced with difficult events.
I’ve mentioned how poverty and homelessness relate to health care, but our population is about to experience its greatest growing (shrinking) pains in history. This will be a new phenomenon as baby boomers age out of the workforce and become more dependent on their much smaller group of offspring. They will be adapting to changes such as ill health, lost pensions and widowhood.
In the case of the latter, perhaps a husband did the banking and drove all these years so his wife would be at a disadvantage without him. Or a wife cooked and looked after her husband’s medication, but he lacks culinary skills and isn’t sure what the pink or blue pill was for. They are now lost without their partners.
With access to community resource we can teach the woman pertinent life skills and arrange for volunteer drivers. We could also teach the gentleman how to cook in a group with others who are facing the same challenges, so he remained independent and developed the support of friends. We could further arrange plans through his local pharmacy to manage the medication safely. In these 2 examples we’ve saved the cost of a nursing home, ER and putting stress on CCAC homecare before it was truly necessary.
To ensure this project is viable for rural communities the province would need to provide central management of core resources. The cost of operating this way comes with savings in itself and any common programs or literature can be shared amongst regional areas. This structure can accommodate the hiring of 1 course provider to float between grassroots offices, from month to month. In January they can run a 6 week course in Collingwood and in the middle of February the same person can spend 6 weeks in Wasaga Beach etc. In another area 1 employee could be responsible for Ancaster, Stoney Creek, Grimsby, Winona and West Lincoln. It’s a cost effective means of reaching far more isolated people. The alternative is providing transportation to “the city” and Social Services already complain that’s one of their most overwhelming budgets.
I’m not suggesting we provincially mandate all social groups, but providing a small office filled with information to populations of 10,000 (grouped or alone) seems like a good option to manage dwindling resources. It’s a social emergency location where clients will be met by a guidance counselor of sorts. If we don’t give people a place to speak and be counted, they will find it on the other end of 911.
I know there are many “solutions” to poverty, but the important part is that we take action on some of them. Access to life sustaining employment is obviously the foremost concern in everyone’s minds. But while our economy rebuilds and numerous families have found their way to the margins, we have a duty to ensure the whole process of recovery is cohesive and productive, as opposed to conflicting and punitive. In reflection of these fears, TVO reported social services ranked in the top 3 issues according to the electorate. It notably surpassed both healthcare and education:
And finally I’ll leave you with the 2010 report card on child and family poverty in Ontario: