Ontario’s deputy premier, Deb Matthews, reported last week on the province’s five-year poverty reduction plan and admitted the goal that had been set in 2008 of lifting 90,000 children out of poverty, thereby reducing child poverty by 25 per cent, has not been met.
Matthews’ announcement also included plans to raise the Ontario Child Benefit to $1,310 annually per child and $50 million over five years for poverty reduction initiatives. But this government has rightly come in for criticism for failing to meet poverty reduction targets while putting aside $4 billion to take 10 per cent off electricity bills. By the time that gift runs out in 2016, another $1 billion will go to that program. It is a nice vote-getter, but is shameful in the face of the admitted poverty strategy failure. So Matthews’ attempt to pass the buck to the federal government for falling short is a weak excuse at best.
The province can lay claim to some advancement in their strategy such as instituting full-day kindergarten, one of the many benefits of which is that it will allow mothers seeking employment more flexibility.
Yet, despite what has been done so far, the rate of poverty among the general population has increased. In Ontario some 1.5 million people live in poverty; close to 25 per cent of Toronto’s population live in poverty, for the most part visible minorities, recent immigrants and single parents.
Of the nearly one million children living in poverty in this G7 country, some 371,000 are in Ontario, an increase over the past 25 years. Child poverty among so-called racialized groups is actually higher than across the general population with as much as 50 per cent of the children in some neighbourhoods living in poverty.
Matthews’ assertion that the economic downturn hindered the Liberals’ poverty reduction target has it backwards. Rather, failure to be aggressive in advancing the plan exacerbated the economic downturn. That includes the delay in raising the minimum wage and then only doing so piecemeal.
The matter of growing income inequality has to be taken seriously because from it comes other costs that can be mitigated when poverty is reduced. Chief among them is health spending which accounts for more than half of the provincial budget, bearing in mind that there is an undeniable correlation between poverty and health.
Matthews, the minister responsible for the Liberal government’s poverty reduction strategy, also referred to her government’s plan to invest in support for people who are homeless. An allocation of $16 million over the coming three years will go to housing people living with mental illness and addiction.
However, the key issue of affordable housing as a strategy in stemming poverty seemed to elude her. Matthews admitted to not having a good fix on how much will be required to address homelessness specifically. We have to ask why a government that has been in power for close to a decade does not have a definitive answer for the numbers and need. Surely the Liberals cannot blame the feds for that.
We know we have a problem when the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Toronto would require an annual income of $40,400, yet consider that 70 per cent of low-income earners are renters and that the poverty cut off is $23,000 annually.
The province has received a promise of $800 million from the federal government to build affordable housing over the next five years. Creative accounting could place those funds anywhere on the government books. Since the government is aiming to rein in its debt, the affordable housing portfolio could sit on the low priority pile while interest on funds could go to paying down debt.
Unless this government places poverty reduction high on its list of priorities, we can anticipate continued growth in the low-income sector and the subsequent social and spending costs that come with increased poverty.