The pandemic has made people poorer in Ontario.
The rising demand at food banks, and a growing number of people facing evictions and precarious jobs they feel lucky to have, has added to a very difficult year for the 1.5 million Ontarians – and half a million children – living in poverty.
Ontario’s five-year Poverty Reduction Strategy released at the 11th hour late last week just ahead of the holiday rush will do little to change that.
By law, the province must present a new poverty reduction target every five years. Its latest document is deeply flawed.
The plan fails to address the concerns of households at risk of deepening poverty during a pandemic-induced recession. It sets low markers of success by measuring poverty reduction as the number of people who exit social assistance. It fails to recognize the growing number of working poor in Ontario. And it overlooks the fact that not all jobs are created equal.
There’s little in the strategy aimed at transforming the structural inequalities in the labour market that harm Black women and racialized communities. These groups are overrepresented in minimum wage jobs with few benefits and little job stability and potential for growth.
What should be clear more than nine months into this pandemic is that poverty is a women’s issue.
Women are overrepresented in poverty statistics, a reality that is compounded for women who are Indigenous, newcomers, seniors, living with disabilities and single parents. Children are poor in Ontario because their mothers are poor.
Rather than improving the system of social assistance by, for example, implementing the recommendations of Income Security: A Roadmap For Change and raising benefits, the government has decided to move ahead with a $500 million “modernization plan” that fails to increase assistance.
The government’s strategy recognizes that social assistance recipients need support to stabilize their lives before they can enter the job market. But it offers little to address the material deprivation facing these households.
A single person on Ontario Works is expected to live on $733 a month when the average rental price for a one-bedroom apartment in Ontario is $1,277? The waiting list for subsidized housing in some parts of Ontario is longer than seven years.
Social assistance recipients are also the largest population group accessing food banks in Toronto. How can someone secure a job when they cannot feed themselves and their families?
Decades of inadequate government policy has created pockets of deeply entrenched poverty. But there is a clear path forward.
We can start by introducing a $15 minimum wage, paid sick days and penalties for companies that fail to act on the gender wage gap. Re-establishing an employment equity program that sets clear targets and is tied to access to government contracts would also send a clear message to private sector employers. Investments in employment and training programs need a gender lens so that women affected by COVID-19 can move into higher paying jobs.
The current strategy mentions some of these ideas, including the need for greater investment in affordable and supportive housing, but without strong commitments and clear plans.
We are not done with this pandemic, not even close. We know the demand for social assistance will grow. As people try to access this system, through no fault of their own, what will that mean for women – and mothers – and those redirected to dangerous minimum wage jobs that afford little protection or benefits? How will this support people who do not have access to child care or stable housing because of violence?
These are troubling times. Many community groups and advocates fear that the province’s plan will exacerbate racial inequalities, gender disparities and childhood poverty. There has never been a more critical time to tackle persistent poverty in Ontario than right now.
Heather McGregor is CEO of YWCA Toronto. Debbie Douglas is the executive director of Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants (OCASI). Neil Hetherington is CEO of the Daily Bread Food Bank. Deepa Mattoo is the executive director of the Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic. Chris Brillinger is the executive director of Family Service Toronto.