About 100 people settled into the pews of First Pilgrim United Church in Hamilton yesterday afternoon for a public forum on poverty reduction. Planned and organized for about six weeks in advance, the event was intentionally scheduled for MPPs’ Constituency Week so that local Members of Provincial Parliament in Hamilton would be able to attend to hear public views about poverty and poverty reduction.
Two local MPPs did participate in a panel that addressed participants’ comments and questions: Andrea Horwath, NDP MPP for Hamilton Centre and Paul Miller, NDP MPP for Hamilton East-Stoney Creek. Ted McMeekin, Liberal MPP for Ancaster-Dundas-Flamborough-Westdale had expressed his regrets many weeks ago as he is recovering from surgery, although his Executive Assistant was present for the whole event. Sophia Aggelonitis, Liberal MPP for Hamilton Mountain, had been confirmed as attending but begged off the previous evening, sending a constituency office representative instead.
Tatum Wilson, senior policy advisor on the poverty reduction file in Deb Matthews’ office attended and participated on the panel on the Minister’s behalf with the two NDP MPPs.
The panel discussion and moderator for the participants’ questions was Craig Foye with McQuesten Legal and Community Services. Josie D’Amico welcomed the assembly on behalf of the Campaign for Adequate Welfare and Disability Benefits, the primary sponsor for the event joined by more than ten other community organization co-sponsors.
Issues and concerns raised by those attending focused very much on the struggles and hardships of people living on ODSP or OW. A sampling of the personal examples given and concerns expressed by participants included:
- The inflexibility of ODSP in terms of adjusting to people’s changing life circumstances in relation to employment or living situation.
- The frequency of being cut-off ODSP benefits for no good reason, which left people desperate and created tremendous instability in living situations.
- The inadequacy of 2% increases in the social assistance rate given the 21% cuts more than ten years ago and the rise in the cost of living since.
- The desperation of a growing number of seniors about inadequate incomes (e.g. living n under $8,000 a year) and lack of access to essential health benefits.
- The need to completely give up all assets in order to qualify for assistance and the lack of resources people have to fight the system that denies or cuts off benefits.
- The anxiety about changes in the winter clothing and back-to-school provisions that will create hardships for families and humiliation for children as the new school year starts.
- The unfair charges to tenants of a landlord’s tribunal costs when eviction notices are challenged.
- The fear about the implications for low income people as energy costs will rise drastically as early as next winter.
- The struggles that single mothers have trying to help their children get a good post-secondary education when the OW system reduces the family’s benefits for children earning income to help pay for their tuition and books.
MPPs Horvath and Miller and Senior Policy Advisor Wilson listened intently to the accounts from the more than 30 people who came forward to the microphones. They offered their observations on situations and issues presented.
The NDP position on the poverty reduction strategy is that it should be under the direction of an all-party Parliamentary committee, not one led by the Liberal Government on its own. The NDP have advanced a number of Private Member’s bills over the last number of months that would contribute to poverty reduction and all have been killed by the majority Liberal Government. The NDP is also very critical of the consultation process that the Minister has set up.
Tatum Wilson asserted that the Minister is serious about a strong and comprehensive poverty reduction plan and a consultation process that will hear all who wish to participate and contribute their views. He promised that he would take back to the Minister everything that he had heard in the Hamilton public meeting. All of the consultations have their particular concerns depending on where they are being held and who is participating but there are some common themes emerging such as the crisis in affordable housing, inaccessibility of public transportation for low income people, and the stigma of living on OW or ODSP. Rules and regulations of the current OW and ODSP system that create more hardships for low income people are also being raised often in consultations.
In response to a question about the Minister only inquiring in her consultations about using existing resources differently to reduce poverty, Mr. Wilson replied that the intent is to see where changes might be made to make sure there are better results from how existing money is spent, but that the Minister’s consultations are also asking about how new money should be used to reduce poverty.
It was observed that, although Mr. Wilson’s presence and participation on behalf of the Minister was much appreciated, it is really the job of the elected political representatives to participate in such public meetings, especially MPPs from the governing party, except for legitimate reasons such as health issues.