Framing poverty: who really gets to grow in Ontario?

04-17-19

My first official week at Canada Without Poverty (CWP) has been nothing shy of electric.

With the release of the Budget Implementation Act which included key legislation for the National Housing and Poverty Reduction strategies to the Ontario Budget release, the Alberta Election to Equal Pay Day – it has been an important week for us at CWP.

It’s these highs and lows of the past week that have made one thing evident: how we frame poverty in this country matters. And the reality is, we are all impacted.

If you are anything like me, the news of the past week can feel like a sensory overload. But as we start to see a political shift in Canada, let’s talk about how social assistance programs are on the chopping block.

With the same breath of the federal government’s announcement for 1.3 billion to repair housing units in Toronto, the Provincial government in Ontario slashed $1 billion through cuts to the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services.

For the nearly 5 million people living low-income in Canada who may be looking at poverty reduction strategies as a hope for the future, this news can feel like one step forward and ten steps back. But when we talk about these cuts, it isn’t just social assistant recipients who feel the crunch, it’s all of us. These reforms will impact everyone in the province – including those who label themselves as “taxpayers”, “Canadians” or “the wealthy”.

It is crucial to understand that the way the media frames poverty, matters.

Buzz words like “welfare”, “employment insurance” or “income security” can be thrown around as headline clickbait. Politicians alike use these statements to showcase policy platforms to reduce poverty that can be easily retracted should they change their minds and proudly state “the best form of social assistance is a job”.

Cuts to social assistance have serious effects, only exacerbated by the perception that poverty is caused by personal failure. This logic, coupled with the misguided idea that poverty is easily remedied by increased autonomy, and more opportunities to “join to workforce”, increases the narrative that the relief of poverty comes down to personal choice.

But the single mother who is holding down three minimum wage jobs with a sick child doesn’t need another job. She needs a good job with a living wage that makes it possible for her to be bedside at the hospital and still make ends meet.

Over the past week, we’ve heard many stories like this; those individuals in our community who will be directly impacted by these so-called “reforms”. In response to the budget cuts to ODSP, a member shared their story:

“These ODSP “reforms” are short-sighted & cruel. My autistic son is 23yrs old, works 24hrs/wk & volunteers. Gov’t should celebrate when employment is attained & maintained, not punish. Why a 75% clawback on earnings over $6000 & kicked off ODSP @ $24,704 (ODSP +pay), not $30,456?”

We have to be realistic – the cuts to funding and ancient model of “getting people back into the workforce” don’t actually alleviate poverty for many in this country. And the messaging we’ve heard from this announcement scapegoats the real price of poverty.

So even if you’re not persuaded by the human side of poverty relief, let’s talk numbers.

The economic cost of poverty includes the provincial and federal government spending of up to $13 billion per year ($15.1 billion when indexed to inflation) in Ontario alone. This number includes increased medical expenses, strains on the criminal justice system, impacts on agriculture and of course, lost productivity. Meaning, in the long run this results in: more people exhausting hospital beds as they can’t afford their preventative medications, an increase in food bank users and shelters that are beyond capacity, costing us all billions annually.

Incentivizing work as the way to solve poverty, while providing a patchwork of private and public services, is not sustainable.

We can no longer be idle on our human rights commitments to ending poverty in Canada. And this is also why it is imperative to talk about the faces behind these policies; who are they serving and what are the real consequences are of continuing to neglect comprehensive, cohesive, intersectional and human rights-based approaches to social assistance and poverty reduction.

It’s time that we ask this provincial government: who really gets to grow in Ontario?

 

Alexandra Zannis is the Project and Outreach Coordinator at Canada Without Poverty.