Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne addresses faith leaders at the annual ISARC event at Queen's Park Nov. 2. Photo by Michael Swan

Province is promising action on poverty

  • November 10, 2017
Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne has promised to make getting people out of poverty a campaign issue as provincial politicians gear up for the 2018 election.

Wynne told faith leaders at an Interfaith Social Assistance Reform Coalition (ISARC) event at Queen’s Park Nov. 2 she believes Ontario is finally in a position to take action on reducing the number of people living below the poverty line.

“The economy was in the tank,” she said. “It is time now for us to step up and do the things we have to do.”

The premier came to the podium right after St. Michael’s Hospital researcher and family physician Dr. Gary Bloch presented a just-released, government-commissioned, major review of how Ontario’s welfare system should change. There are 900,000 people in Ontario living on social assistance, but the system is confusing, punitive and leaves people struggling far below the poverty line, said Bloch.

“It is not a system particularly conducive to getting people out of poverty,” Bloch said.

Social workers and others working in welfare offices spend “60 to 70 per cent of their time” policing and enforcing rules. Bloch called for a culture change in welfare offices to refocus the system on solving problems and helping people.

But the most basic problem is that welfare rates are too low, Bloch said. 

While the basic income pilot program collects information over the next five or six years on how a negative income tax could change the economic landscape, the province needs to get to work on increasing basic social assistance rates, said Bloch. Bloch and his panel of experts have recommended a 22-per-cent increase in welfare rates over the first three years of a 10-year “Roadmap for Change.”

The Income Security Reform Working Groups recommends a standard flat rate of $893 per month (from $721) and a disability flat rate of $1,334 per month (from $1,151) by fall of 2020. The expert panel would get to the new rates by increasing payouts by five per cent a year over three years.

Wynne committed to seriously reviewing Bloch’s report.

The opposition Progressive Conservatives sent Lambton-Kent-Middlesex MPP Monty McNaughton to address the ISARC gathering of faith leaders.

“There is a real issue (of poverty) in rural Ontario and it often goes ignored,” McNaughton said.

He highlighted the high cost of rising electricity bills and the loss of manufacturing jobs in southwestern Ontario.

“People need jobs,” he said. “They need good jobs and meaningful jobs.”

McNaughton professed to be a fan of economist Milton Friedman and fully supportive of the basic income pilot project. He criticized the Wynne government for a slow rollout of the pilot and lagging numbers of people signed up to take part.

Ontario hopes to eventually have 4,000 people enrolled in the experiment.

Plans to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour in 2019 are “too fast, too soon,” he said.

ISARC used the meeting to launch a “Let’s Vote to End Poverty” campaign. The organization hopes to get congregations and faith leaders to challenge candidates on poverty issues during next year’s election campaign.

The Assembly of Catholic Bishops of Ontario, Sisters of St. Joseph, Catholic Charities of Toronto and several other Catholic organizations are members of ISARC.

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