By MURPHY BROWNE
The Ontario government has a plan to reduce child poverty which has been in the works since last year. On Friday, March 20, the McGuinty Liberals announced a bit more of their strategy for reducing child poverty in the province.
In 1989, the Canadian government had a plan to reduce poverty by 2000. In 2005, a long list of international celebrities signed on to a slogan that was supposed to “Make Poverty History”. The celebrities did not give a timeline for this lofty goal, but four years after the hype, they seem to have forgotten all about it.
An Ontario government website advertising a Cabinet Committee on Poverty Reduction states: “Ontario needs everyone at his or her best to truly succeed as an economy and society. That means creating opportunity for all, not just some. It means ensuring every Ontarian can contribute to and benefit from Ontario’s prosperity.
“This is a new committee. Members will work to develop poverty indicators and targets, and a focused strategy for reducing child poverty and lifting more families out of poverty. The goal of this committee is to make progress in the fight against poverty over the course of the government’s four-year mandate”.
The Cabinet Committee on Poverty Reduction consisted of 16 provincial legislators. Now, in their second term in office, the McGuinty Liberals are making noises about working to develop poverty indicators, targets and a focused strategy for reducing poverty. They do not need to waste time and money on any more committees which usually only write reports that sit on shelves and gather dust. There are anti-poverty groups whose members are experts and could have given the government a blueprint on poverty reduction within hours.
The Ontario Coalition against Poverty (OCAP), since it was founded in the 1980s, has been advocating for people who live in poverty. If the McGuinty government was serious about reducing poverty, they would have consulted with anti-poverty groups, especially those groups with members who actually live in poverty.
According to the OCAP website, “In 1995, just before the Harris Government cut social assistance rates by 21.6 per cent, 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”.
The provincial government has had more than four years in office and has made no effort to reverse the Mike Harris Conservative government’s devastating cuts to the welfare (Ontario Works and Ontario Disability Supports Program) rates which were cut by 21.6 per cent almost 14 years ago. Welfare recipients are expected to live on the same amount of money today.
Welfare was designed to support an extremely vulnerable population and without organizations like OCAP they would be even more vulnerable. OCAP’s “RAISE THE RATES” campaign demands include a 40 per cent increase in income for people living on Ontario Works and Ontario Disability Supports Program – the amount by which the Harris Conservatives cut social assistance rates in 1995, adjusted for inflation and the cost of living. The campaign also demands that the minimum wage be raised to $10 an hour in order for workers to receive something closer to a living wage.
The Ontario Liberals raised the rate from Harris’ $520 a month (in 1995) for a single person with no children, to a ‘generous’ $572 a month in 2009. The maximum shelter allowance is $349 (assuming that anyone can find a decent place to live for that amount). A sole support parent with one dependent child receives $922 a month. Many people in this situation spend almost their entire cheque on rent and then have to depend on food banks and soup kitchens to eat.
The child poverty rate in Ontario reached 16.1 per cent in 2003, compared with 11.6 per cent in 1989.
Since 1991, Campaign 2000 has been tracking child and family poverty numbers in Canada and releasing annual reports based on Statistics Canada data. In a 2003 study, it found that 33 per cent of children living in poverty had at least one parent who worked full-time year-round. In its 2008 report, it found that number had grown to 45 per cent. It also reported that poverty rates for children in Aboriginal, racialized, new immigrant and single parent, mother-led families are at least double the average rate.
On Friday, as the Liberals were preparing to unveil their plans, The Colour of Poverty Network was presenting a community forum to address the racialization of poverty. Usually, when poverty is discussed, there is no acknowledgement of how race affects people who live in poverty.
The Colour of Poverty Network states on its website: “Poverty in Ontario is growing at an alarming rate. On September 5, 2007 the Colour of Justice Network announced the launching of the Colour of Poverty Campaign – a province-wide, community-based effort to help raise public awareness about the serious problem of poverty within the racialized communities of Ontario”.
And in its literature, it explains: “In societies dominated by people of White, Caucasian or European backgrounds, different ethno-racial groups have long been targets of discrimination and social exclusion. Such groups are said to be racialized or marked by the dominant group as inferior.
“Racism doesn’t just refer to individual beliefs and attitudes towards specific ethno-racial groups in society, it also includes systemic and built-in features of society, the way that institutions like education, health, social services and the justice system function – day in and day out”.
The Children’s Aid Society’s presentation at a Colour of Poverty Forum recognized that: “Poverty is racialized, that is, disproportionate to people of colour who are Canadian-born and newcomers. Among broad ethno-racial groups in the Toronto Census Metropolitan Area, the 2000 Low Income Cut-Off-Before-Tax rates of child poverty was about one child in 10 in the low income range among global European groups; and one child in two for children of African groups”.
It has taken the Liberals a second term and almost five years in power to begin to address poverty in the province.
And, while the government has refused to legislate the $10 an hour minimum wage for workers in Ontario, politicians had no qualms about voting themselves a 25 per cent raise on December 21, 2006. These politicians were definitely not living in poverty before they awarded themselves a minimum of $22,000 which raised their salaries to $110,000 each. Cabinet ministers received a raise of $31,000 which took their salaries to $157,633 while the Premier received an extra $39,000 which raised his salary to $198,620.
When OCAP encouraged people living in poverty, many on less than $20,000 a year, to access an extra $250 a month through a special diet supplement, these same politicians were quick to make the special diet supplement unavailable. That is how much the provincial government is really concerned about people living in poverty.