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What is Missing in Ontario's Poverty Reduction Strategy

January 22, 2015 Poverty Reduction

In 2013 we provided a submission as part of the consultation on this Strategy.  In that submission, we put forward four suggestions on what the strategy should include.   (Here is a summary of that submission https://www.hamiltonjustice.ca/blog/?post=Summary+of+our+Poverty+Reduction+Strategy+Submission&id=241

After analysis of the new Strategy, we wish to share some thoughts /concerns with you. 

1. Evidence Based Social Assistance Rates

A most pressing issue continues to be the extreme depth of poverty suffered by recipients of provincial social assistance benefits. The Commissioners, in the final report of the Commission for the Review of Social Assistance in Ontario, pointed out that existing social assistance rates are arbitrary numbers. These rates are not set through any evidence-based methodology. Rather the rates are politically determined amounts bearing no relation to the actual costs of rent, food and basic necessities. Currently, largely as a result of drastic cuts to rates made by the provincial government in 1995 and the failure of subsequent governments to even ensure that those inadequate rates kept pace with inflation, provincial social assistance rates fall far below even subsistence levels of assistance for many selected family sizes (particularly for individuals and families in receipt of Ontario Works benefits).

The social assistance system has been substantially eroded over the past twenty years. People who rely on Ontario Works (OW) live in deep poverty. Benefit rates were cut by 21.6% in 1997. Since then, small annual percentage increases to rates that began in 2005 have not even kept up with inflation. OW rates are effectively lower now than they were when the program was created. And, even with other tax-delivered benefits and credits, incomes are still grossly inadequate.

The Income Security and Advocacy Centre (ISAC) calculated this erosion in a report prior to last June’s election. We quote from Background Information prepared by ISAC’s Steering committee on Social Assistance published

“For example, the benefit rate for a single person on OW is only $626 a month. The only additional income sources for single people are the GST/HST credit and the Ontario Trillium Benefit, which add up to only about $75 / month. Single people on OW must therefore struggle to live on a total income of just over $8,400 a year. This is more than $12,400 below the poverty line.

and

“A single mother with one child gets only $940 from OW. She also gets income from the Ontario Child Benefit, the Canada Child Tax Benefit and the National Child Benefit Supplement, the Ontario Trillium Benefit, and the GST/HST credit. But even with those extra sources of income, she and her child are still living nearly $10,000 below the poverty line. “

Rate changes that came into effect last month do little to redress this unfair situation.

Clearly, the current social assistance system is not adequately supporting our most vulnerable individuals and families. This will have dire consequences for the future of our communities. The severe underfunding of these vital cash transfers to the poorest members of our society negatively affects public health and education levels, as well as other areas of society. The Clinic urges the Provincial Government to effect institutional change immediately to the way social assistance rates are currently determined. This change can be achieved through the creation of an independent arms-length body. Each year that body would recommend evidence-based social assistance rates. 

For some time, we have advocated for the creation of such a panel. This panel would set rates that would have some relation to the actual cost of rent, food and other basic necessities. To that end, in 2011, we met with the Commission for the Review of Social Assistance in Ontario and subsequently made this recommendation to them: 

“That the Government of Ontario establish an arm’s length body to recommend evidence-based social assistance rates on an annual basis. Those rates should be based on an analysis of the actual costs of rent, a healthy food basket, and other basic necessities in communities across Ontario, and should provide a level of assistance that will allow individuals and families to live with dignity....”  

Recommendation #27 of the Brighter Prospects report called for the province to adopt a “rational methodology” to set social assistance rates.

 We would submit, however, that a framework for that methodology was already established in 2007. The former Bill 235, championed by then MPP Ted McMeekin, was introduced in the legislature in June of 2007 but “died” when the legislature was adjourned.

The Social Assistance Rates Board that was proposed in that Bill would meet at least six times a year and give an annual report to the Minister of Community and Social Services. It would recommend appropriate social assistance rates. Regional variations in rates could be proposed. The legislation laid out a process and timeline that would require the Minister to respond to the recommendations.

 Reforming the Social Assistance system as part of its Poverty Reduction Strategy was a major initiative of the McGuinty government. While there is much that needs to be changed with the current system, the creation of a rates board, as described above, should be a priority.

In order to create a legacy of evidence-based social assistance policy development in Ontario, it is necessary that this work be institutionalized and arms-length so that this crucial, yet perennially unpopular, policy issue is not left to the whim of party politics and public opinion polls.  

2. Proposed Pilot Project 

We believe that the future costs of not providing at least subsistence levels of income to individuals and families in Ontario are unacceptable.

Our staff appear as Tenant Duty Counsel at the Landlord & Tenant Board of Ontario. At this Board, we regularly advise persons who are in receipt of Ontario Works benefits who are, unfortunately, being evicted due to inadequate social assistance incomes.

This all-too-frequent scenario negatively impacts children’s educational careers as they are repeatedly compelled to change schools.

School turnover rates, particularly for schools in Hamilton’s low-income neighbourhoods are high. In fact, recently we heard from a Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board social worker that one inner-city school had an 80% student turnover rate every year.

We would request that the Provincial Government consider funding a pilot project in Hamilton to research the effects of social assistance programs on educational achievement. We would suggest some form of longitudinal study that looks at the effects of social assistance incomes (and income changes) on students as they progress through school.

We have been in contact with the Evidence-Based Education and Services Team (E-BEST) of the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board. They have expressed an   interest in working with the Clinic to initiate this project.

3. Lack of Targets in the Poverty Reduction Strategy

In the first strategy, it was argued that establishing targets was an important aspect of any poverty reduction strategy. “A central component of this strategy is a target towards which to drive, and a series of indicators against which to measure our progress. The target and indicators outlined below will make Ontario an international leader in measuring success in poverty reduction.”

We believe that the second Poverty Reduction Strategy must be enhanced by the addition of specific poverty reduction targets.For example, the 25in5 Network for Poverty Reduction notes, “(w) hat’s missing is the plan for making it happen, including clear targets and an investment strategy.” http://25in5.ca/bold-vision-in-ontarios-new-poverty-reduction-strategy-action-plan-and-investment-strategy-now-required/The Clinic shares the view of the Interfaith Social Assistance Reform Coalition:

We must engage now “with government leaders about timelines, measurable outcomes and mid-range goals to achieve progress with this new strategy.” http://isarc.ca/?p=456

Ontario Campaign 2000 notes that Ontario’s good intentions and bold promises need to be backed up with adequate funding and clear targets that will not leave children and families in poverty waiting for action and relief from poverty. http://www.campaign2000.ca/Ontario/OntC2000on2014PRS.pdf

Others feel the same way.

Surprisingly, though, the new strategy appears to have abandoned the idea of setting targets.

We quote from the Breaking the Cycle – Chapter 5 – Measuring our Progress:

"A central component of this strategy is a target towards which to drive, and a series of indicators against which to measure our progress. The target and indicators outlined below will make Ontario an international leader in measuring success in poverty reduction.”

Surprisingly, though, the new strategy appears to have abandoned the idea of setting targets.  We believe that the second Poverty Reduction Strategy must be enhanced by the addition of specific poverty reduction targets.

Others feel the same way.

For example, the 25in5 Network for Poverty Reduction notes, “(w) hat’s missing is the plan for making it happen, including clear targets and an investment strategy.” http://25in5.ca/bold-vision-in-ontarios-new-poverty-reduction-strategy-action-plan-and-investment-strategy-now-required/

Ontario Campaign 2000 notes that Ontario’s good intentions and bold promises need to be backed up with adequate funding and clear targets that will not leave children and families in poverty waiting for action and relief from poverty. http://www.campaign2000.ca/Ontario/OntC2000on2014PRS.pdf

The Clinic shares the view of the Interfaith Social Assistance Reform Coalition:

We must engage now “with government leaders about timelines, measurable outcomes and mid-range goals to achieve progress with this new strategy.” http://isarc.ca/?p=456

 

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