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Ontario Needs A New Common-Sense Approach To Social Assistance

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How do you determine your budget for rent, groceries and the rest of your basic needs every month?

If you have an income and you're one of those admirable people that, out of necessity or good sense, actually sets and sticks to a budget, your process may go something like this: you start with your income, then you subtract your housing costs, and what you need for groceries, clothes, transportation, and personal items. The amount that's left reflects a lot of factors, including what things cost in your community, what your particular needs and priorities are, and how you shop.

But for 894,954 Ontarians on social assistance, taking this common-sense approach isn't an option. For a variety of reasons, such as poor health or the inability to find work, these people have come to the last resort of relying on financial assistance from the provincial government: the province decides how much they need to live on, and what constitutes a reasonable basic standard of living.

Currently there's a drastic disconnect between those two numbers. No amount of good budgeting can get $680 (what a single person on social assistance in Ontario receives) to cover the cost of renting a bachelor apartment in Toronto ($937) or even Sudbury ($610), let alone other costs.

On average, people estimated that a single person in Ontario would need $1,400 to make it through the month...

The NDP-sponsored Bill 6, which recently passed a second reading with unanimous support, aims to address this gap. The bill proposes to establish a commission that would create a method for calculating rates that takes into account the actual cost of living, with regional variations taken into account. If the Ontario government seriously wants to reduce poverty in this province, it must adopt this approach, even if it means higher social assistance rates, and letting go of the long-held notion that increasing rates is politically unsaleable or unaffordable.

It's been far too long since social assistance rates have been viewed through the lens of whether anyone can actually survive with dignity on them. Under Mike Harris's "Common Sense Revolution," social assistance rates were slashed by 21.6 per cent based on no criteria other than that government should spend less, that people deserved less, and that this approach would resonate with the public. Since then, rates have only inched up by tiny increments, never reaching anything close to what they were before the cuts.

In 2009, staff at The Stop Community Food Centre developed an online calculator as part of their Do the Math campaign. The campaign called for the public to input into the calculator the minimum amount of money they'd need to cover basic living expenses each. On average, people estimated that a single person in Ontario would need $1,400 to make it through the month -- more than double what people on social assistance actually receive, and still far below the poverty line.

When phase two of the campaign -- Eat the Math -- was being developed, a conundrum emerged. The idea behind this phase was to invite high-profile Torontonians to try to limit their grocery expenses to the amount someone on social assistance would have to spend after paying for rent. But calculating a number in a positive range proved nearly impossible, especially for single people. After deducting rent and even a small amount for other basic needs, you were in the red. Since it made no sense to ask people to deal with a negative grocery budget, a change of strategy was required.

The government needs to act now to fix a fundamental gap in the social assistance system, and help Ontario's poorest residents.

The group was tasked with trying to survive on a typical food bank hamper for a week instead. When food ran out, participants could choose to give up on the challenge, or consider making their way to a free meal program -- mirroring the actual strategies that people living on social assistance have to use to survive, and illustrating why we as a society have become dependent on emergency food programs as a stop-gap measure.

At Community Food Centres Canada, our concern starts with food and food insecurity. But we understand something that governments of recent years have not acknowledged -- that food is intimately linked with all other budget items. The calculation of social assistance rates has to take into account the cost of housing, food and all other personal needs. Because when there's not enough money, food is the first to go. And when people go without food or turn to food banks, their health and well-being takes a serious hit.

We should care about this simply out of a sense of justice and empathy, of course, but there are also economic consequences: the University of Toronto's PROOF project on household food insecurity has estimated that health-care costs for food-insecure people are between 76 per cent and 121 per cent higher than those of adults who are food secure.

We applaud the fact that the Liberal government has a number of initiatives aimed at improving income security in Ontario, including a promising basic income pilot. But planning for and implementing this pilot will take time. The government needs to act now to fix a fundamental gap in the social assistance system, and help Ontario's poorest residents. We've been beggaring too many of our fellow citizens for too long, preventing them from having their basic needs met at a vulnerable time in their lives, and therefore from having a good shot at healthy and successful futures. Where is the common decency -- or common sense -- in that?

Get involved: Visit the Fix The Gap website to learn more about Bill 6, and let your MPP know that you support evidence-based social assistance rates by calling, emailing or tweeting at them in support of Bill 6.

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