In my latest op-ed for The Toronto Star, I discuss how quiet acceptance of austerity is not a realistic option for those living on the economic edge.
During the last two weeks in Ontario politics, we have seen a tale of two reports. The Drummond report has received a great deal of attention and rightly so: as the Star’s own Martin Regg Cohn put it, “Cutbacks are back and bigger than ever. And this time, they’re here to stay.” Millions of Ontarians, but especially the poor and middle class, stand to be impacted should the government act on Drummond’s recommendations.
Yet another report, that of the Commission for the Review of Social Assistance, slipped under the media’s radar and was greeted with little fanfare by the government and general public alike. This report discusses different approaches to improving some of the key areas of the province’s welfare system and is an important step in the broader review process headed by ex-StatsCan chief Munir Sheik and former United Way of Greater Toronto CEO Frances Lankin.
The review of social assistance plays a key role in the provincial government’s poverty reduction strategy, announced by the premier and welcomed by anti-poverty advocates back in 2008. Sheik and Lankin have embarked on an extensive consultation process, speaking with social workers, policy experts, business leaders, people with lived experience of poverty, and anti-poverty advocates. Their final report, which will make recommendations that will enable government to “remove barriers and increase opportunities for people to work,” is to be released this summer.
While the Drummond report takes a largely hands-off approach to social assistance, deferring to the work of the commission, much in it runs counter to the spirit and stated goals of both the review of social assistance and the broader strategy of poverty reduction. For one, Drummond recommends rolling back the Ontario Child Benefit (OCB), a subsidy that helps low-income families provide for their children. The OCB has been partially credited with the small but nevertheless important reduction in child poverty Ontario has seen over the past few years.
But more generally the report is silent on the concerns of the poor, from much-needed increases in child-care funding to the construction of more affordable housing. Drummond was, after all, primarily tasked with discerning where to make cuts, not how to expand social programs.
If acted upon, Drummond’s austerity package could well push Ontario’s unemployment rate into double-digits. With the federal government’s continued reticence to expand eligibility for employment insurance, thousands more Ontarians could turn to a welfare system that currently does more to punish than help the poor, who have yet to recover from the 22 per cent cut to welfare imposed by the Harris Tories back in 1995. McGuinty has raised rates slightly, but these increases have not kept up with inflation. If welfare was to be returned to pre-Harris levels, the government would have to raise rates by close to 60 per cent. You can be sure that such an increase is not in the cards in the current political climate.
So the next few years, likely the next decade, look tough for low-income Ontarians. Lower child-care subsidies, larger waiting lists for social housing, persistent unemployment and more people caught in the dire dilemma of whether to feed the kids or pay the rent. Changes to employment standards and labour law, which could create the conditions to lift people out of poverty, will be derided as “unfriendly to business.”
How then do the poor make gains in a climate of austerity? Before we mine history for answers we must first ask: “Who are the poor?” The obvious answer is, “those living at or below the poverty line,” but many of us live one paycheque away from poverty. What happens to social assistance and other social supports should be a concern for us all.
And as a recent Metcalf Foundation report concluded, between 2000 and 2005 the number of working poor increased by 42 per cent, numbering 113,000 people in the Toronto region alone. Those numbers have certainly risen since the Great Recession began in 2008. And an even larger number of people are near-poor. The poor are not only those living on social assistance.
Before the great labour struggles of the 1930s and ’40s, the poor were, like today, both working people and those out of work. Those struggles led to the legitimization of unions, the construction of the welfare state, and a greater share of society’s wealth going to labour.
In the 1960s, unions and anti-poverty organizations pushed for the expansion of social programs and lessened inequality. They marched, they protested, they made noise.
In the mid-1980s, anti-poverty, labour and women’s groups mobilized to influence the direction of the provincial Liberal-NDP coalition’s social assistance review. Poor people’s marches snaked through three of Ontario’s largest cities. The end result was a 25 per cent increase in welfare rates and the humanization of many aspects of a stigmatizing and punitive system.
History shows us that poor people’s silence will be met with government inaction. As American academics Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward put it in their classic book Regulating the Poor, “A placid poor get nothing, but a turbulent poor sometimes get something.” The Drummond report tells poor people they must wait. Now it is up to the poor to reply: “We will not.”
Simon Black is a researcher in urban social policy at the City Institute at York University and a member of Peel Poverty Action Group.
published in The Toronto Star, March 3 2012 IN6