Timely investments will reduce poverty but also stimulate local economies

Sarah Blackstock, Pat Capponi, Janet Gasparini
25 in 5 Network for Poverty Reduction

Just four months ago, Ontarians congratulated our provincial government for committing to reduce child poverty by 25 per cent in the next five years.

We knew there was a lot more work to do, including taking action to reduce adult poverty and improving our outdated social assistance system, but we viewed our government’s commitment as a foundation for real progress on poverty.

In the days leading up to the March 26 Ontario budget, as the province’s jobless numbers mount into the tens of thousands, our government’s commitment is more important than ever.

We hope that the worsening provincial economy will embolden Dalton McGuinty’s government to act swiftly on poverty reduction. But there are signs the government is getting cold feet. Appearing last week before a federal committee studying the issue of poverty reduction, Minister Deb Matthews insisted the government can still succeed in meeting its targets, but warned that worsened economic conditions could result in an interruption in implementing the anti-poverty strategy. If so, Ontarians would pay the price of inaction for many years to come.

We understand that the challenge facing Ontario is immense.

Our federal government did nothing for the very poorest in its January budget, leaving provincial governments to deal with the fallout of growing unemployment and an inadequate Employment Insurance (EI) system that ignores more people than it helps.

The unemployment situation is going from bad to worse in Ontario as the effects of a global recession make their way into this province.

In February, Ontario lost 35,000 full-time jobs and experienced almost half of the total job losses in Canada in January and February.

Without adequate EI, the majority of unemployed Ontarians will be forced to apply for social assistance – and the current rules require them to get rid of their assets, including RRSPs and savings – in order to qualify.

And those who end up on social assistance live in abject poverty.

This is just one reason that our communities are calling on the McGuinty government to invest in Ontario’s poverty reduction strategy, starting with the March 26 budget.

Solutions to this and other problems are readily available.

We know that increasing the Ontario Child Benefit to $92 a month in the 2009 budget and $125 a month in the 2010 budget would help protect families during an economic downturn.

The one helpful thing the federal government did in its budget was to unleash infrastructure dollars to help get shovels in the ground and people working. That funding is conditional upon the provinces matching it and we strongly urge the Ontario government to make the most of this moment by investing in social infrastructure to build affordable housing and child-care spaces.

Leveraging federal infrastructure dollars to build more affordable housing helps all Ontarians and building new affordable child-care spaces supports parents who need to work and retrain during the economic downturn.

By implementing a $100 Healthy Food Supplement, adults on social assistance would be better able to access healthier food, which reduces health-care costs down the road and makes for a smart long-term investment.

And imagine what a housing benefit would mean for a low-income renter whose job has been scaled back but whose rent keeps rising. It’s the difference between waiting years for an open spot in a social housing unit and spiralling into deeper poverty or being able to keep on living in the apartment you currently rent.

We know investments in low-income Ontarians are good for poverty reduction but do double duty by stimulating local economies – just what Ontario needs right now.

Investing in poverty reduction helps in the short term but it’s also about building a stronger, more resilient Ontario, where people are better off, where communities are vibrant, and where all hands are on deck to contribute to our economic recovery.

Ontarians expect that when their government makes a commitment to reduce poverty in the next five years, it will live up to that promise.

An Environics poll shows 81 per cent of Ontarians believe in times of recession, more than ever, it’s important to reduce the number of poor people in Ontario.

These are challenging economic times and, historically, it has been during such dark moments that previous governments did the most for the poor and the jobless.

Abandoning the poor during an economic downturn is not the kind of leadership Ontarians envision for their government.

Now is not a time for cold feet. It is a time for bold action.

Now, more than ever, we turn to our government to meet its commitment.

Sarah Blackstock is a policy analyst with the Income Security Advocacy Centre. Pat Capponi is facilitator of Voices From the Street. Janet Gasparini is chair of the Social Planning Network of Ontario