Ontario needs budget that’s fair for all

The tragic deaths of four Toronto men experiencing homelessness over the past winter highlights the urgent need for more attention to be paid to issues addressing our most vulnerable in the upcoming provincial budget.

Ontario’s new five-year Ontario Poverty Reduction Strategy has begun to address these important issues, but we need even greater leadership in the spring budget if we truly want to tackle poverty’s root causes and challenges.

Recent provincial budgets have made only modest increases to social assistance rates, leaving rates dangerously inadequate.

A single person receiving Ontario Works is provided only $656 per month, of which $376 is allocated for shelter. The average rental price for a bachelor apartment in Niagara is $500, assuming one is even available, so it is no wonder people must turn to food banks and precarious housing situations to survive.

Rates have not kept up with inflation and are not set using data of the actual costs of shelter, food and other basic needs.

Ontario’s next budget should prioritize the establishment of evidence-based social assistance rates and set rates to an adequate level.

Too many Ontarians do not have access to essential, extended health benefits such as dental, vision and prescription drugs.

A recent report from the Wellesley Institute found one on three Ontario workers lacked extended benefits.

The provincial Poverty Reduction Strategy’s commitment to provide dental benefits for adults on low incomes by 2025 means people living with dental health issues, pain and infection must wait 10 more years for services.

This budget should commit to the full implementation of public dental benefits for all adults and seniors on low incomes by 2018. After all, dental benefits for adults was originally announced by the province in 2007 but never acted on.

Investing in Ontario’s community infrastructure must include a commitment to a comprehensive affordable housing plan that includes legislation for inclusionary zoning and investments for social housing capital repairs.

As well, timelines and budgets must be established to tackle homelessness, including more supportive housing for people with mental health and addiction challenges.

All provincial parties recently voted in support of Bill 18 to strengthen labour laws and relations; what is also needed is a Good Jobs Strategy that addresses the income and security needs of the thousands of Ontarians who are precariously or under-employed or who are struggling to gain a foothold in our fast-changing economy.

People with disabilities face significant barriers to finding employment. More must be done to address their unique needs.

Finally, the budget should have a clear plan to build sufficient public revenues to invest in our communities and in those who are marginalized.

A recent report from the Ontario Association of Food Banks found poverty costs Ontario up to $38 billion every year.

It would cost much less than that to develop a strategic plan to build a fairer, healthier and more equitable Ontario that ensures no one is homeless, relying on food banks, lacking extended health benefits or faced with chronic unemployment.

The deaths of the four Toronto men who were homeless should not only add urgency to the government’s plans, it should serve as a stark reminder that homelessness is just one of the many facets of poverty.

It is wrong on a human level and it costs us all, both socially and fiscally. The Niagara Poverty Reduction Network calls on our provincial government to show bold leadership in the upcoming budget to tip the scales toward a fair and just Ontario.

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Elisabeth Zimmermann is chair of the Niagara Poverty Reduction Network. ezimmermann@ywcaniagararegion.ca

This op-ed appeared in the St.Catherine Standard on March 12, 2015

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