This month, the Ontario government is expected to release a report by former Senator Hugh Segal mapping the way toward a basic income pilot project and setting the stage for consultations with Ontarians.
From the outset, the idea of a basic income has been mired in controversy in large part because it exposes fundamental differences in our views of justice, freedom, the balance between collective and individual rights and responsibilities, and the role of government.
The idea of an unconditional income guarantee has won renewed favour from proponents across the ideological spectrum, but that also means advocates hold very different views of what a basic income should look like, how generous it should be, whether it should be targeted or universal, and how it should be paid for.
Imagine having to choose between paying the rent and buying food, or between medicines and food? Imagine worrying, perpetually, about where you next meal will come from, or the shame of relying on a food bank. Imagine grocery shopping when all you can afford is the no-name brand of mac-and-cheese. For millions of Canadians, many of whom are working, this is reality.
"The simple definition of (food insecurity) is people struggling to put food on the table because they lack money," Valerie Tarasuk, a professor of nutritional sciences at the University of Toronto, says. "That is a very big problem in Canada and the public face of that problem is food banks."
Back in 1993, a single person on social assistance would receive $663 per month, which is $962 in today's dollars. The poverty gap (the difference between total income and the low-income measure) for these individuals was 20 per cent. Today, that single person on Ontario Works (OW) only receives $681 and experiences a poverty gap of a startling 59 per cent.
Much of this poverty gap can be explained by the austerity measures during the "Common Sense Revolution" of 1995, when the Harris government cut social assistance by 21 per cent and froze rates until they left government in 2002. Since then, the cost of living has continued to rise, yet progress on reversing the damage has been limited.
Scrapping Canada’s patchwork of income support programs and replacing them with a single “basic income” with no strings attached, would make poverty worse for everyone, says a new report.
Or if the money was used to help the poorest Canadians, it would lift adults and children out of poverty at the expense of seniors, says the report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.
“There is no magic bullet to eliminating poverty,” said economist David Macdonald, author of “A Policymaker’s Guide to Basic Income,” being released Wednesday.
“Basic income programs can be part of the mix, but increased wages, lower unemployment for youth and better financial support for seniors also have to be part of the deal,” he added.
The possibility of implementing a Guaranteed Annual Income (GAI) is currently one of the hottest topics in Canadian social policy. It gained momentum earlier this year when the Ontario government announced it would undertake a pilot study of the GAI. And in June, the Ontario government announced that former Canadian Senator Hugh Segal will advise them on the "design and implementation" of the pilot.
A discussion paper he has authored is expected to be made public this fall, and three months of consultations will start soon in Ontario.
The main idea behind a GAI is to give every adult in Canada a fixed amount of money with few if any conditions and to do away with several other types of income assistance programs (especially social assistance).
The Dignity for All campaign is getting ready for our fourth annual ChewOnThis! event across the country, and we’re looking for volunteer organizers to help bring the message that we need a plan to end poverty in Canada.
Over the past three years, hundreds of individuals across the country have gathered to acknowledge October 17th, the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, to spread the message that Canada needs a national anti-poverty plan. With 1 in 8 households in Canada relying on food banks each month, and almost 5 million people in poverty, people across Canada know that we need to act now.
1. The average monthly income for food bank users is $750
2. More people than ever are “working poor”
3. Our city is increasingly polarized
4. Many Syrian refugees are living in poverty
5. Older Torontonians are falling through the cracks
6. We’re not getting the whole story
Get a job. It seems so obvious, such an easy answer to poverty. But it's funny how things work sometimes.
Young, single moms, for instance. . . They are among Londoners most likely to be living in poverty. See, it's tough to get a job, if you don't have child care. But then, how do you pay for child care if you don't have a job?
People with disabilities or mental health issues – they fall into another demographic likely to be living in poverty. For people with certain disabilities – those who receive Ontario Disability Support Payments, which work out to less than $14,000 a year -- work may not be an option
"It's déjà vu all over again"
The famous quip by baseball legend Yogi Berra could easily be applied to recent attempts to reform social assistance here in Ontario.
On Thursday, Hamilton East — Stoney Creek MPP Paul Miller will present a bill for second reading in the Ontario Legislature: Bill 6 could help fix a broken social assistance system that currently leaves recipients living in dire poverty. At the heart of the legislative initiative is an attempt to restore dignity and opportunity for 900,000 social assistance recipients in this province who often become trapped in the cycle of deep poverty.
Approximately one in nine households under the purview of the Simcoe-Muskoka District Health Unit have food security concerns.
The problem of easily obtaining and affording safe, healthy and familiar food for about 11% of households, combined with only a quarter of those food insecure houses accessing local food banks, has the health unit looking at other options.
"The root of household food insecurity is poverty," said Jane Shrestha, a registered dietitian working on the food security issue for the health unit. "Solutions that have an impact on the incomes of folks who are struggling to put food on the table are likely to be the most effective solutions we have available."
The Coe Hill food bank is open three Mondays a month. It serves twelve families. The volunteer who runs the food bank told us that some people who come to the food bank can’t even afford the 25 or 50 cents for clothing that the local thrift shop charges. So she has started to provide free clothing at the food bank. The food bank is also looking at starting a ‘wood share’ program – so people can get free wood to heat their homes.
Pat, a food bank volunteer tells us of a man who walks 10 miles to Coe Hill in order to receive ‘a little bag of food’. This man could also go to the food bank in Bancroft with public transit.
Public transit for people in Coe Hill is one bus to Bancroft every second Friday at 8:00 am. The return trip from Bancroft leaves at noon the same day. It’s about a half hour ride each way – so a person without a car has three hours in Bancroft every two weeks to go to the food bank, or do grocery shopping, keep appointments and maybe visit family or friends. If this same man went to the food bank in Bancroft he would have an additional ten mile walk back to his home after the bus drops him off in Coe Hill.
In the Waspy Toronto the Good I grew up in, everyone was proud to look down their noses at the nation to our south and proclaim, “we do not have the division between haves and have-nots that they have down there.”
Every September since 1999, Toronto’s public health department reminds the city that this old smugness, and the reality it spoke to, have largely disappeared.
The department issues a report identifying the cost of a frugal basket of nutritious food for a family of four, and assesses what that means for people on low incomes.
This year’s report, which will be presented to the Board of Health on September 30, says the weekly cost of such a basket is $198.34, up 1.4 per cent from last year and up 20.1 per cent since 2009.
Bill 6 is a private member's bill with the goal of establishing social assistance rates that fit with the cost of living in different Ontario communities. People who depend on Ontario Works or the Ontario Disability Support Program have been losing their buying power since 1995, when the Ontario government cut payments by 21.6 per cent for all recipients.
Since the cut, recipients have been on a downward slide into deep poverty. Despite an annual increase of one per cent to the rates, the inflation of food and accommodation prices far outstrips the increase. This is evident from the annual government-mandated surveys — the Nutritious Food Basket (NFB) reports that compare individual and family incomes to food and accommodation costs in municipalities across Ontario.
The worst example of people being left behind are unattached recipients of Ontario Works: at present they receive only $681 per month, and the NFB report for 2015 shows them to be $121 short per month for nutritious food after rent for an average bachelor apartment. This, despite a 2012 recommendation by the Social Assistance Review Commission for an immediate $100 raise which would have brought them to $700 four years ago.
Bev Gateman works out of what used to be a supply closet at the local high school.
From her cramped office she, alongside an army of volunteers, is responsible for feeding 12,000 students a day through 73 school breakfast programs under the provincial banner, Ontario Student Nutrition Program.
The program offers nutritional meals developed to fit the needs of individual schools and receives about 14 cents per student, per day.
“We do as much as we can, but we just don’t have enough money. I’m the only paid person in the whole of Grey-Bruce and everybody else volunteers their time,” Gateman said.
The face of hunger in Toronto is growing older.
Adults over age 45 are the fastest growing group of food bank users in the city, making up more than one-third of 905,970 visits in 2015-16, according to the Daily Bread Food Bank.
A decade ago, older adults made up just over one-quarter of food bank users, but today they account for 35 per cent of those relying on free food hampers.
Meanwhile, the opposite has happened for children under 18, who represented 34 per cent of food bank clients in 2006. That number has fallen to 29 per cent this year, says Who’s Hungry, the food bank’s annual report.
“One of the biggest demographic shifts observed in those accessing food banks in Toronto is the reversal of age groups at opposite ends of the age spectrum,” says the report being released today.
The Ontario Liberal government needs to act immediately by raising social assistance rates to levels that let people pay their rent and still live in health and dignity.
Premier Kathleen Wynne’s government has started yet another cycle of consultation on poverty reduction. Since 2008, social justice advocates have participated in a series of policy consultations regarding social assistance reform, only to be disappointed every time by government inaction. Almost a decade of empty discussions about “poverty reduction” has shown that consultation is a diversionary tactic to avoid tackling poverty.
Premier Kathleen Wynne must live up to her promise to become the “social justice premier.” She needs to do what the Ontario Liberal government should have done on the day it took office: raise social assistance rates to levels that let people pay their rent and still live in health and dignity. There is no reason to delay.
People living in remote First Nation communities on the James Bay Coast have to spend over half of their income on food in order to meet basic nutritional requirements, according to a new study by Food Secure Canada.
The authors of the report do not believe that lowering the costs of healthy food in northern communities is enough to address food insecurity.
Rather, a broader comprehensive strategy is needed that includes guaranteed minimum incomes that are in line with the higher cost of living in the north and having a healthy diet.
"We call on the federal and provincial governments to make access to nutritionally adequate and culturally appropriate food a basic human right in Canada," the authors write.
The province’s basic income pilot project and income security review are promising, but the need to increase social assistance rates is urgent.
Six hundred and fifty-six dollars. $656.
That’s the amount — per month — that the Ontario government provided in 2015 to social assistance recipients who were single and considered “able-bodied.” Add in the GST credit and the Ontario Trillium Benefit for those living on low-incomes, and the total monthly income amounted to $740, whether you lived in Toronto, Thunder Bay, Ottawa or anywhere else in the province.
It is no wonder that two-thirds of households that rely on social assistance in Ontario are food insecure — in other words, they don’t have enough money to buy the food they need for a healthy life. And food insecurity has a price. Researchers at the University of Toronto have found that health care costs among Ontario households increase dramatically as the severity of food insecurity increases. For those who are most food insecure, health care costs are 121 percent higher than they are for those who are food secure.
A small Ottawa charity that's been under tax audit for almost five years has launched a constitutional challenge of a section of the Income Tax Act that restricts the political activities of charities.
Canada Without Poverty filed notice in a Toronto court late last month, arguing the Act violates Section 2 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees freedom of expression and freedom of association.
We don't have to travel to British Columbia to witness the realities of food insecurity. Our Bridge St. congregation has three meal ministries to serve in the heart of Belleville, a community with high unemployment and one of the highest rates of child poverty in the province. Inn from the Cold serves hot meals on 42 consecutive days from mid-January to the end of February. Thank God Its Friday hands out frozen meals every Friday afternoon through the year. In 2015 these two ministries distributed more than 8,000 nutritious and gratefully received meals, in total.
One in five Vancouver Island families struggles to pay for healthy food, a new study says.
A University of Toronto study looking at food security in British Columbia found that families with children younger than 18 are particularly vulnerable.
About 20.6 per cent of Islanders with children are food insecure, compared with 11.1 per cent of all Islanders.
“It doesn’t look good,” said Valerie Tarasuk, a nutritional sciences professor.
Food shortages, hunger and food insecurity have only worsened in Canada. I was astonished to witness the around the block line-up outside Toronto's Allan Gardens Food Bank on the fourth day of the month. I naively thought those kind of queues would only be on the last half of the month when people on social assistance or living only on their Old Age Security had run out of money.
Even during a heat alert, people had braved the sun and humidity to get what food they could. Many were elderly or frail, leaning on canes, walkers or bundle buggies. In what can only be described as a cruel public policy knife in the back, on that same day, the City of Toronto opened its seven cooling centres for people who are vulnerable, however, citing its own impoverished budget, without staff, water, juice or snacks.
The starving student trope is no laughing matter, says a University of Alberta professor who supervised a study of campus food bank use.
Chalking student hunger up to “short-term pain for long-term gain” underestimates the importance of good nutrition, said Noreen Willows, a community nutritionist with the Department of Agricultural, Food and Nutritional Science.
“How can you study if you’re hungry?” she said.
A survey of 58 students who used the University of Alberta food bank between April 2013 and April 2014 shows food insecurity — poor access to food — can negatively affect student health and academic achievement.
“Homelessness itself is a very strong barrier for food security,” said Parpouchi. “You’re not likely to have kitchen appliances for cooking and spaces to store food when you’re trying to secure shelter and housing.”
While food banks and other charities try to help fill the void, Parpouchi says it’s difficult for people to access proper nutrition when they’re already dealing with health issues related to their mental illness, drug use and are just struggling to find shelter and make appointments.
Parpouchi says the answer is to rely less on charities to address that need, adopt housing-first strategies and rethink the way food services are delivered in Canada.
“We need to think about access to food as a human right,” he said
The significant negative health impacts of low income, food insecurity, and inadequate housing are seen daily by health care providers and evidenced by research. People with lower incomes are more likely to have medical conditions such as cardiovascular disease and die at a younger age than people with higher incomes. Food insecurity, only one contributor to poor health among people with low income, is more common among those with chronic diseases such as diabetes and hypertension. It is also associated with increases health care utilization and costs.
Poverty affects health through a complex web of influences including material deprivation, chronic stress, and biological mechanisms such as changes in hormone levels. Poverty contributes to the development of medical conditions and also impact one’s ability to access medical care once they arise.
Members of the Put Food in the Budget campaign demonstrated outside Liberal Cristina Martins constituency office in Davenport riding in Toronto, in support of a delegation of our leaders who met Cristina Martins Liberal MPP for Davenport.
Immediately upon our arrival Martins’ constituency staff told us that we should have let them know we were going to have a demonstration in front of their office! Imagine them thinking we needed their permission to demonstrate!! You can see we lined up right in front of her office so everyone could see. We handed out leaflets and drivers repeatedly honked their horns in support!
The term food desert describes geographic areas with limited access to healthy food because the distance to the nearest supermarket is more than one kilometre. Living far from healthier options forces many Canadians to fall back on higher priced convenience stores or find ways to get to food stores elsewhere. Both options are costly.
But it turns out locating poor food environments is more complex than just identifying food deserts. Food deserts don't include areas of the country where nutritious options are nearby but poverty prevents people from being able to make better choices.
On June 24, news of Brexit overshadowed a development with far greater potential to change your future: Ontario announced that the Honourable Hugh Segal would prepare a discussion paper on constructing a basic income pilot program for the province, launching the most significant opportunity to talk about the country we want to create since the 1970s.
Basic income is a centuries-old idea that has found new life because of two key concerns. The first is about work. Basic income either provides a remedy for a future where robots eat most of our jobs, and those that remain are increasingly precarious; or it liberates us from paid work and unleashes potential.
The second concern is poverty. Efficiency buffs say there are savings to be had by eliminating bureaucracy and reducing public spending on health and crime, while equity advocates seek a more dignified way to support the working poor or those receiving social assistance.
A story in Thursday's Free Press about the new Canada Child Benefit (Child benefit a godsend for poor, July 14) generated what has become all-too-typical feedback about social assistance recipients and government handouts.
The emails, comments and Facebook posts denouncing people on social assistance as lazy were fast and furious: they sit around all day and do nothing; their kids wear designer clothes and have iPhones; they drink and smoke and get everything for free. So where is their incentive to get a job?
Kate Kehler, executive director of the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg, says when you give poor people money and allow them to decide how to spend it, the vast majority make good decisions. They spend it on things such as more and better food, improving their living situation or paying for things for their kids.
According to Graham Riches, emeritus professor and former director of the Department of Social Work at the University of British Columbia, the trend isn't just affecting Whistler.
"I think it's a part of this growing inequality, and that needs to be understood, but I think my own sort of analysis of this is that we have to change the conversation."
"We have to change the conversation from food charity to the right to food, and the right to food is about governments at all levels... being the 'primary duty bearers' in terms of their responsibility for the collective social well-being of their populations," he said.
"My critique is really that (food banks are) undermining the right to food, and the right to food is really about people having sufficient income in their pockets so that they can go into a store like anybody else and purchase the food of their choice," he said.
Since food banks were first introduced in Canada in the '80s, they've become entrenched in local communities, supported by supermarkets and charity drives.
"The more that happens, the less urgency there is for governments to actually do anything about minimum wages, or ensuring that income supports are adequate, or that housing policy is addressed," Riches said.
“We want to be really realistic” or Planning to Fail
Minister of Social Services Helena Jaczek trots out a list of excuses that all but guarantee failure of any proposed reforms. “We want to be really realistic” is code for ‘you can’t blame us if we don’t live up to our promise’. Jaczek says she wants to “create a system of support both inside and outside social assistance that provides adequate incomes” and while she “hopes to begin implementing reforms in January 2018” she first warns us this will only happen “once the provincial deficit has been erased.” (Emphasis added).
If social assistance reform (oops, income security) plans are dependent on the provincial deficit being erased – we may have to wait for a very, very long time for adequate incomes for people who are poor. This is the first excuse Minister Jaczek provides – and there are two more.
When Minister Jaczek talks about ‘winners’ she is simply putting a ‘smiley face’ on the Band-Aid of inadequate social assistance rates.
This June 27 article in the Toronto Star (see here) reveals a lot about the attitudes of Kathleen Wynne’s Ontario Liberal government towards people who are poor. Let’s break down just two of the comments the Social Services Minister makes in this recent interview.
“As long as I’m here there are no losers”
“We aren’t going to call it social assistance reform."
Neither an advisory group nor a consultation process is required to make immediate changes. There is no point to participate in the consultation merry-go-round. Let’s continue to demand that Jaczek and Wynne put food in the budget now!
This June 27 article in the Toronto Star (see here) reveals the strategy of misdirection that the Ontario Liberal Party (now led by Kathleen Wynne) is using to once again avoid raising social assistance rates:
All this just in time for the next Ontario election in June 2018!
Just in case there is any doubt that there will be little movement on creating adequate incomes for poor people Jaczek makes the delaying strategy explicit when she says the following: (See here)
“I feel fairly confident we are going to be making a commitment to vulnerable Ontarians in the 2018 budget,” Jaczek told a gathering at the YWCA in downtown Toronto.
Big change doesn’t just click on. It occurs over time, starting out often as weak signals of the change to come. Sometimes it’s like the old frog in the boiling water story. Put the frog in when the water is cool and turn up the flame and eventually the frog realizes its plight, just too late to adjust, to escape.
A healthy community requires an economy that works effectively for the majority. This is not happening. The signals are all over the place.
It is not popular to suggest that our social democracy and our capitalistic economy are not working. Then again most big change that has come about in our lives did not start out as popular.
What signals are you hearing about the need for transformational change?
Canada Food Centres Chief Operating Officer Kathryn Scharf said awareness of food security issues is growing, as is action to combat them.
Scharf noted that while teaching healthy food skills, offering cooking groups and classes, providing after-school programs where kids can have healthy snacks and creating community gardens are all great ways to combat food insecurity, the key is in making sure more Canadians can earn a living wage.
However, that’s something that will only come about when governments mandate it, said Scharf.
“The key is to fight poverty, fight for housing, increase wages and social assistance rates,” she said. “We can push for those things at a grassroots level, but we can’t make them happen.”
MARGINAL FOOD INSECURITY - Worry about running out of food and/or limit food selection because of lack of money for food.
MODERATE FOOD INSECURITY - Compromise in quality and/or quantity of food due to a lack of money for food.
SEVERE FOOD INSECURITY - Miss meals, reduce food intake and at the most extreme go day(s) without food.
Among the provinces and territories surveyed in 2014, there were no significant drops in food insecurity prevalence, and even indications of an upward trend in the already vulnerable North.
Food insecurity is more prevalent among households with children under the age of 18, particularly those headed by single mothers
Exposure to severe food insecurity leaves an indelible mark on children’s wellbeing, manifesting in greater risks for conditions like asthma, depression, and suicidal ideation in adolescence and early adulthood
Household food insecurity takes a tremendous toll on the health care system.
After adjusting for other well-established social determinants of health, such as education and income levels, total annual health care costs in Ontario were:
23% higher for adults living in marginally food insecure households than in food secure households
49% higher for adults living in moderately food insecure households than in food secure households
121% higher for adults living in severely food insecure households than in food secure households
These findings imply that addressing food insecurity through targeted policy interventions would reduce the associated health care costs and improve overall health.
Despite discussions and initiatives in some jurisdictions, the reduction of food insecurity rates has not been an explicit goal of public policies in Canada.
Food insecurity is rooted in material deprivation, with low income being the strongest predictor.
Research has demonstrated reductions in food insecurity where social policies have improved the material circumstances of vulnerable households.
I was two when my mom got the call, so I don’t remember it. But it's a story my mother told me several times throughout my life, as it was one of her hardest moments.
It was 1984 and food banks were a relatively new addition to my hometown of Calgary, and the rest of Canada. Someone in our community knew we were struggling and had passed our names along to this new organization. One afternoon, a volunteer from the food bank called our house to tell us that they had a hamper ready for us, if we wanted it. My mom hung up the phone and wept. This, for her, was the ultimate sign of her failure as a parent: we were so poor that the food bank was calling.
We need to rethink the way we deal with food insecurity in Toronto. There are a great many people and organizations working on this issue, many whom offer immediate and much-needed access to food for the one in eight Toronto households that are food insecure. Immediate relief is the right humanitarian response, however it doesn’t get to the root cause of the problem. Unless we focus on what is generating food insecurity we will not produce a long-term solution.
Food charity does not replace food insecurity.
That was the crux of a thought-provoking presentation by Mike Balkwill, a well-known social crusader behind a Canadian movement called Put Food in the Budget.
The organizer of a grassroots organization speaking out against food insecurity says the government needs to give Ontarians the tools to get out of poverty, so they don’t have to rely on food banks for their next meal.
Mike Balkwill is the campaign organizer for Putting Food in the Budget, a group of volunteers who live on low incomes, working to change the perception and action around food insecurity in Ontario.
During a presentation to the Poverty Roundtable Hastings Prince Edward at the Quinte Sports and Wellness Centre Wednesday afternoon, he defined food insecurity as having a lack of quality food due to living on a low income. The biggest myth about poverty is that it only happens to certain people, Balkwill said.