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February 27, 2012

Drummond report will dash hopes for Ontario's poorest citizens

Luisa D’Amato

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Don Drummond clearly has sympathy for the poorest of the poor in Ontario. But his report this week on the state of the province's finances is worse news for them than for anyone else.

Drummond asked for radical change to turn around a dangerously high debt situation. His plan is sophisticated, detailed and focuses on making government more efficient as much as it does on cutting programs. It is worth reading in full, and you can find it at www.fin.gov.on.ca/en/reformcommission.

That said, people on welfare, or disability, have now probably lost their last chance at a life of dignity.

Ever since social assistance rates were slashed by 22 per cent under the Conservative government of the 1990s, the people who need that safety net have lived in miserable, grinding poverty. The Liberals took over in 2003, and spent plenty of money on other things, but never seemed to find the cash to restore a decent life to this group.

Today, a single person on welfare is expected to live on $599 a month — about a third of what he or she would earn if working a full-time job at minimum wage. A single parent with a child gets $1,023, and a single person on disability, $1,064. They get other benefits, like prescription drug coverage, and people with children get a little additional relief through the tax system.

But to survive, tens of thousands line up in church basements to eat at soup kitchens, or ask for emergency handouts of clothes, food and other necessities. Kind-hearted volunteers and donors are providing the basics of life because the government won’t.

“Every year the cost of living goes up and these folks go deeper into poverty,” says Mary MacKeigan, executive director of the anti-poverty group Opportunities Waterloo Region.

In his report, Drummond noted that between 2000 and 2010 spending grew by an average of six per cent a year for social programs, in part because of the recent recession.

He doesn’t want to cut spending, because, he says, people on assistance have suffered enough. So he proposes to keep spending increases on social programs to 0.5 per cent a year. (All other government spending, except for health and education, is expected to be reduced by 2.4 per cent.)

But how to go from six per cent to 0.5 per cent? Drummond proposes to do this through finding efficiencies in the system and making it easier for people, including those on disability, to get a job. But with high unemployment rates persisting, what are the chances of keeping costs low enough to meet the targets?

How will the government find the money to extend drug benefits to people who graduate from welfare to low-paying jobs, so that they can afford to stay in those jobs?

Drummond doesn’t speak to the amount people should receive, because there is another province wide commission working on that. For people whose disabilities are so severe that they will never find work, he suggests connecting them with a national income support program that Ontario will persuade the federal government to start. Uh, good luck with that.

People concerned about the poor are waiting eagerly for the final report of that commission on social assistance, expected later this year.

It seems to be the last hope for those at the bottom of the heap to have dignity. But now that Drummond has revealed both the extent of the fiscal problem, and his answer for social assistance, that hope seems like a cruel illusion.

Even more cruel, perhaps, than David Tsubouchi, the Harris-era cabinet minister who callously advised anxious welfare recipients to make ends meet by haggling with shopkeepers over the price of canned tuna.

KW Record. February 18, 2012

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