The New War on the Poor: A Defense Manual

Photo: BBC

Another Progressive Conservative government in Ontario, another war on the poor.

Anti-poverty activists old enough to remember the days of the Mike Harris government will know just how quickly and deeply the Doug Ford Conservatives will cut social supports for people living on low-income. Like the Harris Conservatives, the Ford government will criminalize and penalize poverty, increase surveillance and “fraud” crackdowns, rely on myths and stereotypes about the poor to win public support for their agenda, all the while ignoring polite advocacy and moral appeals. And like Harris, Ford will begin by targeting the most vulnerable and those will the least resources to resist: people living with addictions, folks experiencing homelessness, and lone mothers and their children. The new government’s war on the poor has already begun; in only three months the Ford Conservatives have:

– Cut in half the 3% increase in social assistance rates scheduled to come into effect in September. Furthermore, progressive regulatory changes that were scheduled to be implemented this fall will most likely be cancelled.

– Cancelled the 3-year basic income pilot program, which started last year.

– Promised to freeze the minimum wage at $14 an hour and roll back legislation protecting the working poor.

So what are anti-poverty activist and advocates to do? Here’s a short defense manual for the renewed war on the poor:

  1. Advocacy will not work. Organize, organize, organize. There is no appealing to the “better natures” of the Ford Conservatives. Polite advocacy backed by research reports and appeals to “evidence-based” policymaking are of little use in the fight against an ideologically driven government that has zero concern for those living in poverty. Organizing in low-income communities and building the grassroots power of the poor is what this moment calls for. Empowering poor people to fight on their own behalf has always been and remains the only way to build an effective anti-poverty movement. This kind of organizing is already underway, whether in the fight for $15 and Fairness, the Coalition Against Precarious Work in Peel, or in the wave of rent strikes being waged by tenants in Toronto and Hamilton.
  2. Learn lessons from the past. Throughout the Harris years, the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty provided a model of how direct-action casework could bring about material improvements in the lives of folks living on low-income, despite an anti-poor provincial government. Showing up en masse at the office of negligent landlord or in the welfare office, OCAP used disruptive power in the form of noisy protests and occupations to win small victories, whether a needed repair to an apartment or a discretionary welfare benefit withheld by a stingy caseworker.
  3. Electoral politics matter. While direct-action is the best way to beat back attacks on the poor and limit the damage done by anti-poor policies, strategic organizing focused on electoral politics must be in the plans in the lead up to the next provincial election. A renewed anti-poverty movement must concern itself with raising voter turnout amongst folks living on low-income across the province but should start in the ridings in which Conservatives won by a small margin. Organizing to raise voter turnout in these ridings could make a big impact come the next election and will put pressure on vulnerable Tories in the meantime.
  4. Confront the rich and powerful where they are, not just their representatives at Queen’s Park. Wealthy corporations, developers, and small business owners bankroll the Ford Conservatives. One way to bring pressure to bear on the government is to target those who hold Progressive Conservative Party purse strings. Business owners, especially retailers who have backed Ford to roll back the minimum wage increase, are vulnerable to public naming, shaming, and boycotts.
  5. Survival programs are spaces to organize. Food banks, soup kitchens, and the range of non-profit and charitable services that will be essential to keeping poor folks’ basic needs met in a period of harsh anti-poor policies are places to organize. For a variety of reasons, these service providers eschew activism for advocacy. But that doesn’t mean that folks committed to building an anti-poverty movement shouldn’t engage poor people where they are at and use these spaces to organize, educate, and build a resistance to the Ford government.
  6. Pushing the labour movement to act

For folks living on social assistance, the human face of the Ford government is a unionized welfare caseworker. Public sector unions like CUPE and OPSEU will be on the defensive for the next four years and there have been efforts in the past to build solidarity between frontline caseworkers and their “clients”. These efforts need to be renewed and anti-poverty activists must remind OW workers and their unions of the common interests they share in beating back an agenda that is hostile to the interests of the poor and public sector unions.

If we are going to defeat the Ford government and ensure that families do not have to choose between paying the rent and feeding the kids, we need an anti-poverty movement willing and ready to fight. There no guarantee that we’ll win, but even the smallest and most defensive victories bring hope, keep our energy up, and allow us to dream of a more socially just Ontario in which poverty is history.

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