In her throne speech, Kathleen Wynne announced that welfare reform would be one of her priorities - following up her campaign promise to be the "social justice premier."
If she keeps her commitment, it will mean relief for hundreds of thousands of Ontarians going hungry every month due to egregiously low levels of social assistance. Rates cut radically in 1995 were frozen or have failed to keep up with inflation, causing needless suffering.
As a first step, Wynne could immediately implement three recommendations of the Social Assistance Review Commission (SARC), starting with a $100-a-month add-on to Ontario Works base rates. Currently, this stands at a meagre $606 a month for housing, food and everything else.
The commission also urges increasing the earnings exemption from $100 to $200 per month. When I work, I'm allowed to keep only the first $100; over that, 50 per cent of my earnings are deducted from my next month's social assistance cheque, making it difficult to escape poverty.
As well, SARC recommends allowing those applying for assistance to retain modest assets worth $6,000 ($7,500 for couples) instead of demanding they liquidate all their valuables. My friend had to sell her mother's wedding china before she could get help. Is it "social justice" to force people to lose everything before they can get support?
But SARC didn't propose keeping the Special Diet Allowance (SDA), imperative for many like myself who receive Ontario Disability Support Program benefits. I have quadriplegia as well as osteoporosis and allergies, and currently receive $135 a month from the SDA. Eliminating this would be devastating for me and thousands of others.
Social justice involves the redistribution of resources from the wealthy to the poor. It's not about taking money from one sector of poor people through cutting the SDA and reallocating it to a welfare boost.
Those critical of increasing welfare payments or keeping the SDA may argue that the government can't afford such measures in an age of austerity. But we social assistance recipients have been leading austere lives for a long time.
If Wynne makes these changes, it will signal that she's serious about her social justice premier intentions.
Toronto-based Melissa Addison-Webster is a spokesperson for Put Food in the Budget.