A year and a half ago, as Canada plunged into one of the sharpest recessions since the Great Depression, the Ontario government assumed long-awaited leadership to tackle poverty. On December 4, 2008 it promised to enact a plan to reduce child and family poverty by 25 per cent by 2013. Making good on that promise would lift more than 90,000 Ontario children and their families out of poverty within five years.
The decision couldn’t have come at a more crucial time. The damaging effects of the recession have taken root in every community in this province. Hundreds of thousands of Ontarians have lost jobs. Food banks are struggling to feed record-long lineups of hungry people. Bankruptcy rates are on the rise. Inadequate Employment Insurance (EI) is thrusting out-of-work Ontarians into desperation. Asset-stripping rules and inadequate income supports are leaving those who turn to social assistance all the more vulnerable to lasting poverty.
A year and half into the promise to reduce poverty, economic recovery is still fragile and signs are that ongoing support from the public sector will be critical to ensure a recovery that tackles province’s poverty rate.
Every Ontarian wants to see the backside of this recession, but shepherding the province through an economic recovery that works for everyone—not just the privileged few—will take visionary leadership and unwavering political commitment. Now, with so many of us vulnerable in these hard times, Ontarians need their government to make good on its promise to reduce poverty.
As such, it is crucial that the Government of Ontario’s new 10-year public infrastructure plan support the province’s poverty reduction objectives.
Aligning infrastructure investments with poverty reduction goals benefits everyone, and will be a crucial component in Ontario’s economic recovery and longer-term prosperity.
Continuing to move ahead on infrastructure investments such as affordable housing, early learning and child care, and transportation is not only critical to meet Ontario’s poverty reduction goal. It will also get the province’s economy into full recovery mode and build a foundation for prosperity that can be passed down to future generations.
And aligning investments in infrastructure with poverty reduction is also the smart thing to do for Ontario’s future prosperity. Policies and programs that tackle poverty—like better education, training, and early childhood education—lay the foundation for prosperity that can be passed down to future generations, by ensuring a smarter, better-equipped workforce that positions Ontario to meet future economic challenges.
Building a Foundation for Strong and Supportive Communities: Five Priorities for Ontario’s Infrastructure Plan
1. Housing: Building a Foundation for the Future, Today
It’s time to learn the lesson that affordable housing is key to a sustainable economy and a vital way for the Ontario government to meet its commitment to reduce child poverty by 25 percent within the next five years.
In addition to its role as a crucial poverty fighting strategy, investing in affordable housing during an economic recovery does double duty as economic stimulus: It is a strong counter-cyclical tool that creates jobs and invests in local economies.
Careful investments in energy efficient new units as well as repair and retrofitting of existing housing can also have long-term positive impacts in moving us to a more sustainable, green economy as well as short-term economic stimulus and increasing the supply of quality housing.
Recommendation: A core recommendation for the Infrastructure Plan is to increase the supply and adequacy of affordable housing. The number of affordable housing units must be increased, and ongoing funding is needed for new buildings, maintenance and repair.
2. Early Learning and Child Care
There is widespread consensus that our governments must make major investments in infrastructure to stimulate a recovering economy. But it is important to ensure infrastructure investments are directed to both physical and social infrastructure.
Investing in the capacity and resiliency of people, particularly children, is as vital to our economic health as bridges and highways. And investments in lifelong skills, beginning with the early years, are crucial to ensuring that Ontario has broad participation in creating and sharing prosperity.
Universal early learning and child care has a proven track record of substantially reducing child poverty rates. Investing in child care prepares our future workforce, supports parents to work or retrain, and creates new jobs for women, as well as men. Full-day learning for four- and five-year-olds has long been a strong recommendation of experts as part of a universal child care system.
The Ontario government committed to implement full-day learning for four- and five-year olds, with part of the first phase of implementation focused on low-income neighbourhoods. On October 27, 2009, the government announced plans for phase-in of full-day junior and senior kindergarten starting in September 2010, with a goal of full implementation across the province by 2015.
Recommendation: Continuing support for the infrastructure needs of early learning expansion is key to the success of this initiative. Returns on investments in these areas have been calculated up to sevenfold.
3. Build a public education system that focuses on equitable outcomes
Education is linked to nearly every positive social outcome. But not all students have an equitable chance for success. Strong public education systems foster societal cohesion and civic engagement.
While all low-income students need support, racialized students face particular barriers. Many students from racialized and ethnocultural communities experience discrimination and alienation in elementary and secondary schools across Ontario. Further, they have few teachers and other role models from their own communities in the various fields in the education system.
Schools with high dropout rates are those with the highest numbers of racialized students. The provincial dropout rate was 25% in 2007, and as high as 40% in some racialized and ethnocultural communities and for aboriginal youth.
The Ontario government has committed to:
• Triple the number of Parenting and Family Literacy Centres to 300;
• Invest $10 million annually in an After School Program that will support children in high needs neighbourhoods;
• Make Learning Opportunities Grant funding more focused on helping low-income students who need it most;
• Encourage school boards to ensure that all students can participate in class activities, not just those who can afford it; and,
• Re-focus Parents Reaching Out Grants’ funding to better help parents in higher-need areas participate in their child’s education.
Recommendation: Ontario’s Infrastructure Plan can contribute to ensuring the creation of more Parenting and Family Literacy Centres across Ontario, and to the realization of other commitments outlined by the province in the area of education.
4. Partnerships with the community sector
Ontarians turn to the rich network of non-profit community and social services organizations for support. Community service agencies provide essential supports such as housing, employment training, child care, settlement supports, women’s shelters, individual and family counselling, family respite, social-recreational and educational programs, and many other kinds of aid.
Community and social service agencies are the most locally based organizations in the non-profit sector and provide services directly to people.
Community agencies are facing a number of serious challenges including: pressing needs for community-building initiatives to address growing levels of inequality, poverty and discrimination; hollowing out of administrative infrastructure as organizations stretch resources to shore up programs underfunded by government — all while governments increase their reliance upon the sector for the delivery of needed services.
In its poverty reduction strategy the Ontario government committed to a variety of important community initiatives:
• More than double funding for the Youth Opportunities Strategy, to over $22 million annually.
• $5 million annually in a Community Opportunities Fund to encourage neighbourhood revitalization.
• $7 million annually in the development of a Community Hub Program, using schools as hubs that respond to community needs related to poverty reduction and student achievement.
• Develop culturally sensitive programs in communities with Aboriginal populations.
• The introduction of a new dental plan for low income Ontarians.
In April of this year, the Ontario government, in partnership with the Trillium Foundation, has also started the “Partnership Project,” a discussion about how to strengthen the relationship between the Ontario government and the province’s not-for-profit sector. It is a recognition by the Ontario government that “non-profit, charitable and voluntary organizations are integral to a poverty reduction strategy by delivering the programs and services that matter to people, by strengthening communities and making a positive contribution to the economy.” (Breaking the Cycle, 2008).
Recommendation: Ontario’s infrastructure Plan should be aligned with the commitments made in the poverty reduction strategy for strengthening communities as well as supporting the infrastructure requirements that emerge out of the Partnership Project process. Moving forward with a robust dental plan that is community-based will also require local infrastructure investments.
It is crucial that the Infrastructure Plan engage with community groups and organizations to enable the maintenance and expansion of critical services that meet the immediate needs of community members. The non-profit community services sector requires investments to shore up the crucial supports they provide to people impacted by the recession.
The Infrastructure Plan should also engage with Aboriginal communities to ensure that it addresses the specific needs of these populations on and off reserve.
5. Support public and community transit. Improve access. Make it affordable.
While capital money is required to support the infrastructure of transit systems across Ontario, it is also crucial to ensure that dedicated operating funding keeps pace to make transit accessible and affordable.
The rising cost of transit fares remains a serious barrier for people with low incomes.
Increased provincial operating subsidies and a long-term plan to fund transit across the province are needed to help ensure public and community transit is accessible and affordable in every neighbourhood.
Many municipalities facing budget problems during the recession are considering raising public transit fares, which will hit poor Ontarians the hardest.
Recommendation: While more capital money flows to the infrastructure of transit systems across Ontario, the province and the federal government need to invest in a plan for dedicated, long-term operating funding to make transit accessible and affordable.
Ontario’s economy—and its communities—need everyone to be at their best, to be a part of the recovery and build a sustainable path to shared prosperity.
If we lose sight of our poverty reductions goals, if we fail to align policies across ministries to support the government’s poverty reduction strategy and cease investing in poverty reduction initiatives, giving in to calls to slash and to cut, that recovery and that prosperity will be delayed.