More than 50 participants from community agencies, municipal government, faith leaders, and citizen groups attended a presentation and discussion of the Blueprint at the Regional Niagara Council Chambers on Wednesday, November 26. Gracia Janes of the Niagara Social Assistance Reform Network chaired the session and spoke to the ongoing struggle of people living in poverty in the region since the huge cuts of the 1990s.
Peter Clutterbuck provided an overview of the cross-community work being done to bring the Blueprint to communities for input before it is finalized for release early in the New Year. Marvyn Novick presented the Blueprint and engaged in discussion with participants on its main features.
Discussion covered the following areas:
- Inadequate public transportation systems are a big problem for lower income people in Niagara Region and there was much interest in learning more about how to get investment in public transit as part of a poverty reduction strategy.
- There was strong support for affordable housing as part of poverty reduction and it was noted that many homeowners in Niagara (seniors, unemployed people) are joining the ranks of the poor. 78% of people in Niagara are homeowners.
- Low income people have only two items in their budgets – rent and food. Hunger is getting out of control – 50%-70% increase in numbers since the summer using food programs. Both health and motivation of people are deteriorating and children’s well-being is becoming increasingly at risk. The food supplement would be very important if it were a cash transfer, not a food stamp program. Both the public health and the faith communities should support the food supplement proposal.
- The housing benefit is a good idea but there need to be assurances and protections against housing assistance being captured by landlords through rent increases.
- The faith community must be heard from on this agenda – it must express moral outrage at the conditions in which so many people are living. The Blueprint presents a chance to engage the community in conversations about how to change the growing economic inequality in our society.
- We must increase the level of public discourse on how our finances work and the Blueprint makes some good arguments that can help. Concern about referencing TD Economics on the fiscal imperative, since the TD economist also stated recently that he was concerned that income assistance to low income people would mostly be used to purchase imported goods, thus having little job impact in Canada – ignoring the jobs associated with transportation, marketing and retailing of even imported goods.
- There was some support for bringing the message to the business community since there has been support for parts of the 25 in 5 Declaration among business people in other parts of the province.
- Social assistance reform must also include re-training programs for staff who administer OW and ODSP. The work culture of the system has to radically change to provide greater support and dignity to recipients and eliminate abuse.
- Poverty elimination must always be the goal and the 25% reduction just a first step. There was discussion of the role of a Guaranteed Annual Income to reduce poverty.
- It is important that the Blueprint stimulates an ongoing conversation connected to our citizenship and engaging young people. This should also be linked to the UN Millennium Development Goals for Social Development. We should compare and contrast our situation in Ontario with other countries.
- The notion of prudent borrowing has an appeal. We should also engage the environmental movement in areas such as growing more food in local economies. Another way to create local jobs.
- We must look at increasing the accessibility of persons with disabilities. Many of the restrictions and barriers on person with disabilities are illegal and in contravention of human rights charters.