Many things have changed to improve our lives over the past 20 years. In the 90’s cell phones were most regularly seen on television, and even then they were huge and clunky. Video calls, now an every day occurrence, were the stuff of science fiction movies. We’ve made progress on a lot of fronts, but sadly, dealing with poverty is not one of them.
Ontario just released Budget 2017 – A balanced budget for a stronger, healthier Ontario, which includes new measures to support low income individuals in our province, such as universal drug coverage for youth, a basic income pilot project and a 2% increase in social assistance rates. These are welcome developments to be sure, but still fall far short of addressing the challenges faced by people living in poverty.
As we all know, the cost of living, especially in Toronto, has skyrocketed over the past 20 years. Housing, energy, transportation and food costs have all risen dramatically. But our social safety net has not only not kept pace, it’s lagged shockingly behind.
In 1993 a single person receiving benefits from Ontario Works received $663 per month, or $1,010 in today’s dollars. Today, that rate is just over $700. Imagine trying to live in the city of Toronto for $700 per month. The combination of higher costs of living and decreased levels of social assistance drive people into chronic, grinding poverty, and force them to make tough choices, like pay the rent or feed their families.
We know that food insecurity is not caused by a lack of food, but insufficient money with which to purchase food. It’s made worse by other public policy deficiencies, such as lack of affordable housing, lack of affordable childcare, and a meagre minimum wage.
Social assistance in the past has been put into place to help prevent people from falling into chronic poverty during tough times due to something such as a job loss, serious illness or disability. This is causing many to make tough choices with their limited resources. Most spend 70-80% of their money on rent alone. After paying non flexible bills such as rent and utilities, people on these programs are left with just $7.91 per day to pay for necessities such as food, childcare or transit fare. Many people in this position make the choice to forgo a meal just to get by.
Our policy choices in these areas are not without their costs. When people can’t afford to live healthy, dignified lives, we all pay the price in lost human potential, intergenerational poverty, higher health care costs and poverty-related crime. In a recent report, Social Planning Toronto pegs the cost of poverty in our city at $5.5 billion per year.
The time to change the conversation about poverty in our communities is long overdue. Let’s take this time to reflect on the kind of communities we want to live in. Let’s ask ourselves what kind of lives we want for ourselves and our fellow citizens. And let’s make our voices heard.
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