In the coming days, the long-awaited report of the Commission for the Review of Social Assistance in Ontario will finally be released. But will Premier McGuinty's decision to shut down Queen's Park and prevent MPPs from doing their legislative work mean the recommendations won't get the attention they deserve?
If so, that's a shame. Social assistance is the last resort for individuals and families, and its reform is desperately needed. It's widely recognized that our antiquated programs keep people trapped in poverty, and with hundreds of thousands out of work or underemployed in Ontario, our social safety net is more critical than ever.
Without support and retraining, too many people are being crushed by the impacts of deep poverty and a bureaucratic system that does more to punish than to help people get back on their feet.
We must be cautiously optimistic about the fact that a review has at last taken place, given that rates for welfare and the Ontario Disability Support Program have fallen in real terms by 20 to 40 per cent over the past 20 years, according to the National Council of Welfare. In fact, most social assistance recipients are doing worse in Dalton McGuinty's Ontario now than they were when he took power. While energy, food and housing costs have continued to rise, a single person on welfare is expected to live on less than $600 a month.
In the last 10 years, the Liberals have quietly made life harder for people on social assistance in a number of ways. The government has effectively continued to claw back the Ontario Child Benefit by reducing the basic social assistance rate. It's also drastically cut the special diet benefits that helped provide food for those who are sick. And with no end in sight to the problem, particularly in substandard housing, the government recently ended provincial funding to fight bedbugs.
Finally, just last spring, months before the release of the coming review, the government cut the Community Start Up and Maintenance Benefit (CSUMB) and Home Repair Benefit, which help people move from homeless shelters to housing or from abusive situations to safe ones.
In 2009, all parties voted to pass the Poverty Reduction Act. There is broad agreement that inequality is growing, that poverty is a key determinant of poor health and that we pay far more to treat the impacts of poverty than it would cost us to eradicate it.
So while the report can't come soon enough, it will take more than words to keep a roof over heads and food on the table. As a sign of good faith, the government should commit to holding off on CSUMB cuts at least until the report has been released and a strategy has been put in place.
Visit any food bank in the province and you'll see dozens of people waiting in line. The food bank sector is unable to meet the growing prevalence of hunger, and there is too much resignation in the face of this misery confronting so many.
We can't afford to lower our expectations any further. We have to do better to help the vulnerable weather the economic storm.
Shutting down Queen's Park to hold a leadership contest puts the interests of the Liberal party first, and guarantees that hundreds of thousands of Ontarians will continue to be left out in the cold.
Jonah Schein is NDP MPP for Davenport; Cheri DiNovo is NDP MPP for Parkdale-High Park.