A version of this article was published in The Toronto Star as “Ontario Anti-Poverty Movement Needs a Dose of Street Heat”.
Last week, Frances Lankin and Munir Sheikh, heads of the Commission for the Review of Social Assistance in Ontario, released their final report, Brighter Prospects: Transforming Social Assistance in Ontario. It contains some good ideas but anti-poverty activists will have to ask themselves whether more aggressive action is necessary.
The commission called on the government to implement some of its 108 recommendations immediately, including a $100-a-month rate increase for single adults on Ontario Works (they currently receive $599 a month, 66 per cent below the poverty line); changing the rules to allow all recipients to earn $200 a month without having their benefits reduced, and raising OW asset limits to Ontario Disability Support Program levels of $6,000 for a single person and $7,500 for a couple. Adopting these recommendations would make small, but concrete material differences in the lives of social assistance recipients.
We’ve been here before. The 1988 review of social assistance, entitled Transitions, was a 500-page tome documenting all that was wrong with the system and put forward progressive measures for change. While some of these measures were adopted under the Peterson and Rae governments, in 1995 the Harris Conservatives came to power, cut welfare rates by 21.6 per cent and turned the province’s social assistance system into one of the cruellest and most punitive in the country.
Despite a few tweaks since forming government in 2003, the provincial Liberals have left this system largely intact. With a dismal record on poverty reduction and an apparent willingness to balance the books on the backs of everyday people, it is doubtful whether a new Liberal leader would move us in the right direction.
In fact, just months prior to the release of the commission’s report, the McGuinty Liberals announced plans to eliminate a benefit program that gave up to $1,500 every two years to families on social assistance that were facing eviction, in danger of having their utilities cut off, fleeing domestic violence, moving from shelters or unsafe housing, or unable to replace bedbug-infested furniture or broken appliances. This followed their cut to the Special Diet program which many social assistance recipients relied on to meet their dietary needs.
The government’s formal response to Lankin and Sheikh’s report has been to announce that it will work with its “partners, both inside and outside of government, to discuss the implications of transformation, and begin creating a road map for success.” More discussions, more timetables, more debate, consultation and “stakeholder dialogue.” The government has said that welfare rates and benefit structures will remain unchanged in the interim. In the meantime, Ontario’s poor continue to face the dire dilemma of whether to feed the kids or pay the rent.
Ontario’s anti-poverty movement — the thousands of individuals and hundreds of organizations committed to ending poverty in this province — is now at a crossroads. A cynic might argue that the greatest achievement of the social assistance review process, and indeed the broader poverty reduction strategy, has been to neutralize the anti-poverty movement, channelling its resources and energies away from organizing and activism and into advocacy, away from challenging government to having dialogue with it.
History tells us that successful movements for social change play both “insider” and “outsider” politics. Social movements need advocates on the inside to push their agenda, put forward progressive policies and develop relationships with decision makers. But these insiders are powerless without the threat of disruption and mobilization on the outside, what American civil rights campaigner Jesse Jackson famously called “street heat.” Organizing tenants, occupying welfare offices, knocking on MPPs’ doors, showing up unannounced at political party fundraisers, marches and demonstrations, mass political education, consciousness-raising, appealing to the moral sensibilities of the general public — these are the sometimes messy but always powerful stuff of social movement politics.
Ontario’s anti-poverty movement has a surplus of insiders, but has thus far failed to bring the street heat. Faced with an intransigent government, the question now is whether the scarce resources of the movement can be turned from consultation and dialogue — the polite politics of the inside — to organizing, activism and agitation, the street-fighting politics of the outside.
Does this shift make sense with a prorogued legislature and lame duck premier? Poor people and their allies are tired of timelines, consultations and “stakeholder” meetings. The movement’s focus on insider politics has appeared to play into the government’s agenda of delay, defer and deflect.
At a meeting of the Region of Peel’s roundtable on social assistance, a woman with lived experience of poverty turned to the group and said, “We’re tired of waiting. We want justice and we want it now.” If the anti-poverty movement can’t find justice via commissions and consultations, it’s time we look for it in the streets, constituency and welfare offices across this province.
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, Oct 30 2012