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Bringing Social Assistance Into This Decade Can Fix Poverty Gap

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mike harris 1995
Mike Harris, seen here in a 1995 election campaign photo, would lead the "Common Sense Revolution" that would slash social assistance by 21 per cent. (Photo: Ron Bull/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Many trends of the '90s are coming back once again: a Clinton is running for office in the United States, choker necklaces and crop tops are in vogue, and the Blue Jays are once again in contention for the World Series. But here at the Ontario Association of Food Banks the biggest '90s trend we'd like to see make a comeback is adequate social assistance rates.

Back in 1993, a single person on social assistance would receive $663 per month, which is $962 in today's dollars. The poverty gap (the difference between total income and the low-income measure) for these individuals was 20 per cent. Today, that single person on Ontario Works (OW) only receives $681 and experiences a poverty gap of a startling 59 per cent.

Much of this poverty gap can be explained by the austerity measures during the "Common Sense Revolution" of 1995, when the Harris government cut social assistance by 21 per cent and froze rates until they left government in 2002. Since then, the cost of living has continued to rise, yet progress on reversing the damage has been limited.

They often have to make tough choices: Food or shelter? Food or hydro? Food or transportation?

Since 1995, we have seen small increases to social assistance rates, the addition of federal and provincial child benefits, and added top-ups to single people on OW. Nevertheless, this poverty gap remains distressingly large. The annual income for a single person on OW is only $8,510, leaving them $12,301 below the Low Income Measure.

The inadequate amount of support that people receive on social assistance means that they often have to make tough choices: Food or shelter? Food or hydro? Food or transportation? People will often choose to sacrifice food for these other needs, because skipping a meal or two is easier and less damaging in the short term than, for example, not paying rent. However, the impact of hunger on a child's ability to learn or an adult's health and well-being is far reaching and long term.

This is why the need for food banks persist. The vast majority of people who come through our doors cite social assistance as their main form of income. When you only have $681 for all of your monthly expenses, it's no surprise that so many turn to food banks for help.

Social assistance is a system that is in desperate need of change. It simply is not meeting people's needs -- and has not been for more than two decades.

90s social assistance

Part of the problem is that the amount given to recipients can be arbitrary, subject to who is in power and whether or not austerity measures happen to be popular with the public. It's not based on the actual cost of living for an individual or family. For instance, the maximum monthly shelter allocation provided to a single parent with one child is a mere $609; the average cost of a two-bedroom apartment in Toronto is double that amount. Many families spend more than 80 per cent of their income on rent, putting them at high risk of homelessness.

A private member's bill, introduced by NDP MPP Paul Miller, intends to change this arbitrary setting of social assistance rates. Bill 6 would create a Social Assistance Research Commission that would provide recommendations on suitable social assistance rates to the government based on the cost of living in different regions of Ontario, and take into account the cost of basic necessities, such as shelter, nutritious food and transportation.

The commission itself would be arm's length and nonpartisan, and made up of experts in socioeconomic policy and research, as well as representatives from First Nations groups and individuals who have experienced poverty or lived with a disability. Beyond providing recommendations on suitable rates, it would also examine how social assistance interacts with child support, WSIB and precarious employment to ensure the system works with, not against, these other programs.

It is rare that private members' bills become law, but we are optimistic about its chances. This bill had been introduced earlier this year and had passed its second reading unanimously, receiving support from all three parties.

While the bill has had to start the process all over again after the Ontario Legislature was prorogued last month, it has once again passed its second reading -- but there is still a long way to go before it can become enacted into law.

You can help make sure that this bill becomes a reality. Learn more about Bill 6 by visiting the Fix The Gap website. In order for it to get to the next step, the provincial Liberal government must call it to committee, so let your MPP know that you support evidence-based social assistance rates by calling, emailing or tweeting at them in support of Bill 6.

It's long overdue that we make social assistance reflect the cost of living today, and bring our safety net into the 21st century.

To learn more about the OAFB and our recommendations for change, please visit:

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