On April 6, 2010, ten high-profile Torontonians (and their families, if they’re joining them) will pick up a standard food bank hamper at The Stop. These hampers—which include an array of non-perishable food, as well as a little bit of fresh produce—typically last a person three or four days, though many folks stretch this to a week or ten days. Our participants will live exclusively off the contents of the hamper for as long as they can. They will not eat out or accept free food or drink (though they are encouraged to eat at least two meals at a drop-in). They will be allowed to use up to five standard pantry ingredients—oil, flour, salt, coffee, etc.—but are asked to keep track of the quantity of these items used.
Our participants include:
Last summer, we launched the first phase of Do the Math, in which we highlighted the fact that current social assistance rates don’t allow recipients to regularly obtain even basic food and shelter. Over 4,000 people “did the math” and thousands more signed postcards addressed to the Premier of Ontario, urging action. The government has remained unmoved, however, and the time has come to draw further attention to the problem.
Yes, this is a bit of a stunt. But as the history of political activism has shown, theatre and a little drama are effective ways to draw attention to a problem that people might have grown desensitized to. As Michael MacMillan, one of our participants, explained, peoples’ eyes often glaze over when he talks about poverty and hunger. But explaining his participation in the Do the Math challenge captured his friends’ attention and imagination in a new way. And the only thing we’re trying to prove is that current social assistance rates do not allow Ontarians to live healthy, dignified lives.
Participants are aware that they will only get a little taste of living in poverty. But we hope that even just this brief experience will start to bring poverty home in a new way, and will lead to new understanding, greater compassion, and ultimately, social change. In conceptualizing this campaign, we have and continue to work with an Advisory Committee, comprised of folks with lived experiences of living on Ontario Works or the Ontario Disability Support Program. We are also going as far as possible to make the experience realistic. Participants are permitted only limited use of 5 items from their own pantry. We’ve also encouraged participants to take transit or walk as much as possible (when picking up their hampers, for example). We’ve also asked that they eat a couple times at a drop-in.
Participants have donated to help cover the cost of the food bank hamper so that supplies can be replenished for community members who regularly access the food bank.
We are continuing to build support for the provincial campaign to “Put Food in the Budget,” a campaign launched by The Stop last February in partnership with the Social Planning Network of Ontario and the Association of Local Public Healthy Agencies. This coalition is asking for an additional $100 each month as a first step in addressing the chronic food insecurity and poor health of people on social assistance. In addition to this Healthy Food Supplement, we ask that they also go on to establish a clear and transparent process to set rates based on what it actually costs to live a frugal, but healthy and dignified, life in Ontario.
As a community food centre we see directly the effects of poverty in our community and the impact on people’s access to healthy food. Some highlights from our most recent program survey include:
It is very clear that neither the current job-market nor the social safety net secure people with the most basic necessities of life.
While we continue to provide emergency food programs like our food bank, we know that no amount of charity or food drives can bridge the gap in people’s income or the injury to people’s pride when they are forced to stand in line for food. The strain that poverty takes on people’s physical and mental health is immeasurable.
The Government of Ontario has made measuring poverty a key part of their "Poverty Reduction Plan". Until now, there has been no official measurement of poverty in Canada. Establishing benchmarks is an important way to gauge our collective success in fighting poverty but we also know that our current income security programs leave people anything but secure. In fact, it is nearly impossible for social assistance recipients in Ontario to afford both the market costs of food and shelter, let alone other very basic living costs. We believe that minimally, every person in our province should have sufficient resources to be healthy and to be able to participate economically, politically, socially, culturally, and with dignity in their communities.
"Poverty means not having. Not having the basics: good housing, education, childcare, transit, health services, dental care, and extra curricular activities. Not having the things that prepare us for life, keep us well connected with others. Not having a reasonable shot of doing well. Poverty is about incomes. But it’s mostly about affordability. When the basics are unaffordable, poverty means isolation and desperation."
-Armine Yalnizyan, Economist, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives
"Poverty is a major health threat in Toronto. Compared to people with higher incomes, people living in poverty have: Less access to nutritious food and physical activity; more exposure to pollution; more infections: more heart disease, diabetes, mental illness and cancer; smaller babies; and shorter lives. These health impacts of poverty are preventable. Eliminating poverty is the best medicine money can buy."
-Dr. David McKeown – Medical Officer of Health, Toronto
For a broader discussion about poverty measurements, please see the work of Harvey Low.
There are two social assistance programs in Ontario. One is called Ontario Works, and one is called Ontario Disability Support Program.
Ontario Works (OW) is the income support program of last resort for people without paid employment. It is an emergency program intended to support our friends, family and neighbours when something goes seriously wrong in their lives. It is meant to help ensure that they do not fall through the cracks.
People end up on Ontario Works (also known as welfare) for any number of reasons, including: family breakdown, sickness or injury, caring for a sick family member, caring for children, escaping violence, and being without work or ineligible for Employment Insurance benefits.
Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) is an income support program for people who are unable to maintain full time employment due to a medical condition. For people with disabilities in Ontario, ODSP is often the primary source of income for many years.
No. Despite many assumptions, most people do not want to be on welfare. Being on welfare is stigmatizing and demoralizing. Most people would rather have paid work, but are down on their luck and face barriers to entering the workforce.
Tough eligibility criteria mean that people applying for OW must exhaust all assets before they are able to obtain benefits. This ensures that only people experiencing the most extreme hardship are able to access benefits and that they have very few resources to fall back on.
Generally speaking, people remain on OW for more than one year only if there is a compelling reason for their inability to secure stable employment. Many people on Ontario Works face major health issues that prevent them from getting paid work and should be receiving disability benefits. Unfortunately, ODSP is extraordinarily difficult to qualify for.
There are many kinds of programs that make up the welfare state in Canada from public schools to public healthcare and other income supports too, like Employment Insurance and public pensions for senior citizens. All of us are in some way dependent on the support of others, but for some reason, some people seem to reserve particular contempt for people that need to use the Ontario Works or Ontario Disability Support welfare programs.
Many people that oppose raising welfare rates believe that increased benefits will discourage people from moving into the workforce. We believe that raising welfare rates helps create a race to the top instead of the current race to the bottom. It pushes government and the private sector to ensure good employment opportunities for everyone. We need to ensure that when people are able to work they have access childcare, healthcare, job training, and good jobs. Using punishing welfare rates to push people into low-paying, precarious work is cruel and shortsighted.
For a longer discussion on the welfare wall, please visit this site.
There is no doubt that increased spending on social assistance program will require considerable public investment. The costs of ignoring poverty are far greater. Society pays for an inadequate/inaccessible welfare system in many ways – through higher health costs, more support in schools, higher policing and justice system costs, and increased demand on innumerable social services, community and charitable agencies.
For a recent report on the economic cost of poverty in Ontario, please visit this site.
It is long past the time to address the poverty experienced by people who live on social assistance. Benefit rates are worth 60% what they were 15 years ago. Health impacts are getting worse over time and as more people lose their jobs, the costs of poverty will become greater. Investing in a healthy food supplement will be paid back to the provincial treasury as spending in local economies is stimulated across Ontario. It is in hard times like these when we most need a strong social safety net.
In 1976, Canada signed the United Nations Covenant on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights, which includes "the fundamental right of everyone to free from hunger." In Ontario the government has failed to live up to it’s obligations. In Ontario, people without secure, fulltime, decent-paying work, and people on social assistance programs frequently go without the food they need to be healthy. Benefits have fallen so low, that it is basically impossible for people on social assistance in Ontario to afford the cost of nutritious food that is recommended by public health units. Food bank use in Toronto has increased by 80% since 1995.
For years the government of Ontario has mandated public health units across the province to study how much it costs to eat healthy food. The "Cost of the Nutritious Food Basket" report examines the cost of a very frugal diet, assume that all meals are eaten at home, made from scratch, and that people have both the skills and resources to prepare these meals. Each year these reports show that healthy food is out of reach for thousands of low-income people across Ontario.
Public health units are very concerned about the health risks of poor diet and the long-term health costs of ignoring poverty. Because there is currently no clear criteria for setting social assistance rates, Nutritious Food Basket numbers are ignored by the province when determining benefit levels. Read more about this issue here.
People who experience chronic food insecurity and a lack of access to a healthy diet suffer from numerous negative effects on their health, including higher risk of chronic illness, depression, heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure. Fighting poverty is the best medicine money can buy. Read more about this issue here.
The government has a tremendous role in reducing poverty. Fair tax policies, investment in social programs, and strong employment policy are fundamental to fighting poverty in Ontario. When government abdicates its responsibility, people fall into poverty.
This government must make significant repairs to the social safety net in Ontario just to repair the damage that has been done over the last decade. In 1995, the provincial government under Mike Harris cut social assistance rates by 22% and then froze them until they were voted out of office in 2003. Today, these cuts, combined with increases to the cost of living, mean that welfare benefits have been eroded by approximately 40% since 1995.
Under the Liberals, social assistance benefits have been increased incrementally each year. However, according to economist Jim Stanford, even with the announcement of a 2% increase to social assistance in spring of 2008, Ontario’s most disadvantaged citizens are still further behind where they were when the McGuinty Government was first elected in 2003.
Finally, a government in Ontario has acknowledged that poverty is a serious problem in this province – serious enough that a new cabinet committee has been formed that is dedicated to implementing a plan to reduce poverty in Ontario.
The government will need a comprehensive strategy to tackle the complicated issue of poverty. They will need to ensure that there are good jobs and good opportunities available to all people in Ontario. We believe that they also need to make significant investments to ensure that income supports provide a decent level of income that allows people to maintain their health and dignity.
To learn more about the Ontario Government’s Poverty Reduction plan please visit this site.
The Stop Community Food Centre practices a holistic community model of reducing poverty in our neighbourhood. To learn more and to get involved, you can contact the civic engagement coordinator at The Stop firstname.lastname@example.org. The Stop also belongs to Put Food In the Budget. Learn more about how you can help reduce poverty at http://putfoodinthebudget.ca