Comments Off on Income Security: A Roadmap for Change
Recently the Ontario government released a new report in an effort to deal with the issue of income security, something that affects all of us.
North York Harvest is the primary food bank for all of northern Toronto, representing more than 1/3 of the geography of the city. Each month we ensure that more than 16,000 individuals receive vital food support. Over the 30+ years our organization has been serving this community the demand for emergency food support has never been as high as it is today and we believe numbers will only continue to increase.
We are so happy to see this type of report coming out of government. This is the first report during our 30 years supporting our community that recommends major investments in and improvements to programs that affect the lives of low-income people in Ontario. The report demonstrates a commitment to a fundamentally different approach to supports and services, putting people, and their needs and rights, at the centre.
We ask you to adopt these recommendations, but, especially where OW and ODSP rates are concerned, ten years is too long to wait.
We see clearly, at our food banks and beyond that far too many Ontarians need support immediately; people are going hungry, losing their housing and suffering unnecessary health crises at this very moment because they simply do not have enough money to live a healthy and dignified life in this province.
At North York Harvest we are deeply concerned with the current state of the income security system in Ontario. 1 in 8 households in Toronto are food insecure meaning that they lack the access to the food they need to properly feed themselves or their families. Thousands of children, seniors, single parents and adults are going hungry each day in Ontario.
Food is one of the very few “flexible” costs in the lives of people on low-incomes. We know people are skipping meals, or going whole days without food, so that they can pay for housing, prescriptions and so their children can eat. This is unacceptable anywhere, but especially in a province as progressive and wealthy as ours.
The reason for this is quite clear. People cannot access the food they need because of inadequate incomes.
29% of food bank clients in Toronto are on OW and 35% are on ODSP. The fact that the majority of people we see coming through our emergency food programs are receiving social assistance clearly shows that the rates are unacceptably low.
Food banks provide an undeniably important support to thousands of people. But food banks do not replace an adequate social safety net and cannot solve the problem of food insecurity. Simply put, food bank clients will never be able to access the food they need to feed themselves and their families without sufficient incomes.
We support the vision, principles and recommendations in the Roadmap and know that, if acted upon, they would have a deep impact on the well-being of people on low-incomes in northern Toronto and would do so with dignity and respect.
We urge the province to adopt these recommendations and to do so as quickly as possible. Government must take action now to make life better for low-income people in Ontario.
There has been quite a lot of talk about basic income lately in the news. A basic income is a guarantee to Canadian families and individuals that they will be able to meet a minimum income level regardless of employment status.
This could mean big things for the hundreds of thousands of people in Toronto that struggle to make ends meet to pay for everyday needs such as rent, utilities, transit and food.
This has come up for a lot of debate among Canadians. It also raises a lot of questions about the impact on our communities and economy. In an effort to answer some of the most asked questions about basic income, I spoke with Elaine Power, co-founder of the Kingston Action Group for Basic Income Guarantee.
How do you think basic income will benefit the community?
If we had a basic income program that was available to all who needed it and a basic income program that effectively eliminated poverty, there could be dramatic benefits to the community. The research suggests that public health would improve and health care costs would drop. Eliminating poverty means that kids would have a better start in life, do better in school and have fairer chances in life, and this could also decrease crime rates over time.
If we take away the desperate need for people to find any kind of work that they can, it could liberate people to engage their passion and contribute to their communities through volunteer work and the arts, or to take risks, e.g., with a small business, that they wouldn’t otherwise do. When people have basic economic security, it enables them to dare to do new & different things.
I believe that a basic income program will help build social solidarity, to rebuild a sense of the collective, that we are part of neighbourhoods and communities.
How will this impact the economy & the taxpayer?
People who live in poverty spend their money on basic necessities, like food, shelter, clothing, activities for their kids. They won’t be taking their money out of the country for expensive vacations. That will have an economic multiplier effect, and could make a profound impact in smaller, more rural communities that are struggling.
Research shows that poverty has a high economic cost and that poverty reduction has a big return on investment. A report by the Ontario Association of Food Banks suggested “With the huge savings that could be achieved over time by reducing poverty and its burdensome social costs, the province could very likely pay for the need mix of policies without asking taxpayers for anything more.” The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives has calculated that every dollar invested in reducing poverty would result in about a $2 return on investment. In other words, poverty reduction is at worst cost-neutral and likely would save money over time.
Do you feel as though there could be any negatives/drawbacks that come from having a basic income?
Well, the negatives or drawbacks depend on the type of basic income program that would get implemented. There are different models. Some on the political right would like to see the implementation of a basic income in order to reduce other government supports and services, like public housing. This would not improve the lives of people living in poverty or likely reduce poverty overall, because people would have to pay more of their income for what are now public services. We would not see the types of economic savings I mentioned above in that case.
I am a proponent of a progressive basic income that is part of rebuilding the social safety net, would improve the lives of people living in poverty and would result in dramatic reductions – or the virtual elimination – of poverty.
How will this affect the food bank and food bank users?
The best sign of the effectiveness of basic income or any poverty reduction/elimination strategy would be that food banks are able to close up because of lack of demand. Those who founded food banks back in the 1980’s thought that food banks were an “emergency” response to an economic downturn and that they would close once the economy improved. I have a report from a meeting of food banks in Toronto and area from 1991 that wrestles with the question of when and how Toronto food banks might close. An effective basic income would allow food bank users to acquire food like everyone else. They still might choose to attend hot meal programs, food skills programs, community gardens and community kitchens – but there will be more freedom and choice to do that, not a sense of dire need.
Is the proposed amount of $16,989 enough to get by for individuals?
Like social assistance, the problem with a fixed amount is that the cost of living varies quite a lot across the province – from Toronto to Windsor to northern Ontario. As I understand it, the rationale for making it less than the LICO ( low income cut-offs) or the LIM ( Low Income Measure) is that people will get other federal income transfers, like the GST credit. But I suppose part of the idea of the pilot is to assess if the amount is enough.
Others, like Guy Caron, who is a candidate in the federal NDP leadership race, has proposed a basic income that would be set using the Low Income Cut-off or LICO which is adjusted for city and family size.
What do you say about the idea from opposers that people will go on BI just to “stay home and be lazy”?
This is probably the most common oppositional response to the idea!!
If you ask people if they (personally) would just stay home, everyone says “of course not!.” The reality is that about 70% of people who live in poverty are working, which speaks to the inadequacy of minimum wages.
The reality is that any basic income, whether the Ontario pilot amount or an amount tied to the LICO, is not luxurious. Most people will want to seek paid employment to supplement their incomes. And most people work for reasons other than money.
And the other issue that this objection is based on is that the only work that is valuable is paid employment. We do all sorts of unpaid, unrecognized, invisible work at home and in our communities, including all the volunteer work that gets done for and at food banks. This is valuable and important work. What basic income will help us do is to decide where to put our time and energies in activities that are meaningful and important for us and for our communities. Some people may “stay home and be lazy” for a little while. Most people would not do that for very long – and if they do, perhaps they need other services to help them find meaningful activity.
The benefits of a progressive and effective basic income for those living in poverty and for our communities overshadow the objection that a small percentage of people might “stay home and be lazy.”
Personally, I have never used a food bank. But as someone that has spent time working at North York Harvest and getting to know the clients – I know that it can happen and it could happen when I least suspect it.
One particular story that has touched my heart lately is Jennifer’s. I met her a couple of months ago at one of our partner agencies that assists women that are pregnant and in need of food.
Jennifer is only 17 years old and was working at a part time job to save for college. But then life took one of its many unexpected turns and Jennifer discovered that she was pregnant. Kicked out of her home, she found herself without a place to live and not enough money to pay for food or rent. I really felt for her – something like this can happen to anyone.
When we met, Jennifer had been staying on a friend’s couch and using the food bank. “I was lost with nowhere to go. A social service worker I contacted told me about this prenatal program that also runs a food bank. Even though I’m in a really tough spot right now – it helps me get by.”
With the help of the Jane St. Hub Prenatal Nutrition Program, Jennifer is able to access weekly meetings with other women that are pregnant. I have visited the program once before and can see how truly beneficial it can be for some people. It gives these women a chance to bond and discuss any problems they may be facing – and Jennifer finds this extremely helpful given her current situation. After each meeting, the women receive a hamper of healthy food and have an opportunity to speak with a registered dietitian regarding any nutritional concerns they may have. For many women, this program is a gift.
“The dietitian in the program has really helped me learn about nutrition – which is extremely important to me because I’m eating for my baby now too. In fact, after I am back on my feet I hope I can finally go to college and become a dietitian myself. I want to help others the way that I have been helped.” Jennifer said hopefully.
I feel better knowing that there are programs in my community that help people like Jennifer. Sometimes life doesn’t work out as planned. But because of people like you, I know that there is someone out there to catch us when we fall.
This is just one of the many stories that come out of the programs that you support! Without you, Jennifer may not have found the help she needed or the inspiration to keep going despite unplanned circumstances.
The summer is a time when our food bank stock becomes low. Hunger in our city doesn’t get to take a summer vacation – and neither does Jennifer. With your help, you can ensure that your neighbours are able to access amazing programs in your community regardless of circumstance.
I’m making a plan this summer to partner with Jennifer and others like her to ensure they have the support and healthy food they need. I hope you will join me!