Bishop John Pazak

Ontario’s child poverty targets unlikely to be met

By 
  • December 27, 2012

TORONTO - It’s highly unlikely Ontario will meet its own poverty-reduction targets in 2013, food bank use has hit record levels and Ontario’s bishops are worried that decent housing has become a distant dream for too many people.

The 25-in-5 Network for Poverty Reduction, a coalition that includes churches, unions and social agencies, reports that four years into the government’s five-year commitment to reduce child poverty by 25 per cent, Queen’s Park has veered off course. While child poverty dropped 6.6 per cent in the first two years of the 2008-to-2013 plan, a decision to freeze the Ontario Child Benefit in 2012 and failure to raise the minimum wage since 2010 make it hard to see how the government will reach its own targets, said the fourth annual report from 25-in-5.

On the same day that 25-in-5 released its prediction, the Association of Ontario Food Banks reported 2012 numbers that show food bank use at an all-time high. More than 412,000 people per month in each of the first 11 months got some part of their groceries from a food bank.
Included in that total are more than 160,000 children per month.

Politically, socially and economically the marginalized are disappearing from our collective consciousness, Byzantine Rite Slovak Catholic Bishop John Pazak told The Catholic Register. The chair of the Association of Catholic Bishops of Ontario’s social affairs commission said the Ontario bishops would like to raise people’s awareness of poverty and housing issues.

Reworking the bishops’ voters guide in advance of a potential spring election is one way the bishops may choose to highlight the issue, Pazak said.

“We have to start focussing down on one or two issues to bring that consciousness to our Catholic people,” he said.

While the 2008 economic downturn and rising provincial deficits are real, Pazak said there’s room to question how governments have chosen to cut spending.

“The government got caught in its financial situation and the first thing that goes usually is help to the marginalized,” he said.

The Interfaith Social Assistance Reform Coalition, which includes Ontario’s Catholic bishops, wants governments to look for savings elsewhere.

“There is an attitude that there is an austerity that needs to be implemented,” said ISARC chair Rev. Susan Eagle. “My question is, why is it always on the backs of the most vulnerable that we think austerity should happen?”

The Ontario Ministry of Children and Youth Services says it’s too early to declare defeat on its five-year poverty-reduction goals.

“The data we use to measure our progress is based on information from Statistics Canada, which lags by 18 months,” the Children and Youth Services media and issues office said in an e-mail to The Catholic Register. The 2010-2011 numbers don’t necessarily predict where the province will be in 2013, it added.

The government plans to raise its Ontario Child Benefit to $1,310 in 2014, a year later than originally planned and a year after the poverty-reduction strategy runs out.

The challenge for churches and faith communities who care about poverty reduction will be to get the attention of politicians, said ISARC executive director Michael Skaljian.

“There’s lots of chaos going on at Queen’s Park right now. More than likely that’s not going to help them (government) reach their goal,” he said.

While ISARC tries to smoke out positions on poverty reduction from the seven Liberal leadership contenders vying to replace Premier Dalton McGuinty, the coalition also is looking forward to an election. Getting poverty on the election agenda has never been easy, said Eagle.

“Too easily this thing gets put off as a Toronto problem. In fact, we’ve got challenges and issues in rural communities. It’s not just an urban issue,” said the minister at Grace United Church in Barrie.

All three parties voted for the poverty-reduction strategy in 2008 and they should all be held accountable to it in the next election, said Skaljian.
The food bank numbers should worry us, he said.

“The fact that there’s a greater dependency and reliance on food banks speaks to the fact that our social assistance system is dysfunctional and unable to meet the needs of people living on low incomes,” he said.

Even for clients, food banks have become normal, said Carlos Carreiro, a volunteer co-ordinator at the St. Ann’s parish food bank in downtown Toronto.
“The numbers are growing in the sense that people are less proud. They’re not afraid to go to the food bank,” he said.

Many of the St. Ann’s food bank clients have been coming for years, which has shifted the goals from just making sure people can eat to giving them a sense of belonging, said Colette Carreiro.

“It’s about coming here and feeling included. It’s a community.”

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