Viral Bharatbhai Desai is a recovering addict and a volunteer at The Good Shepherd in Toronto. Michael Swan

More than statistics: Ontario government prepares new poverty reduction plan

By 
  • January 19, 2020

The Ontario government is inviting public input as it drafts a new five-year poverty reduction strategy.

If Viral Bharatbhai Desai has a say, he would tell the province to increase funding to agencies which directly help people who are poor. Church agencies that feed and shelter the poor deal with individuals, not statistics.

Desai has struggled with addiction and has been homeless a couple of times since he first sought help in 2012 at The Good Shepherd in Toronto. Now he volunteers at the shelter and is re-enrolled in a program for recovering addicts.

An accountant who once worked in the hotel industry, he looks at the diners at the centre and doesn’t see people who companies are likely to employ. They’re people who need a sense of belonging in society before they can begin that climb up to employability, he said.

“Whatever the support system means, in the name of The Good Shepherd they have more of an attitude of educating people about what they need, how they can focus on what they need, what are the resources that are available to them,” Desai said. “So it’s not about just being the charity, but introducing that they are really trying to uplift the people.”

The province’s five-year review is mandated by a poverty reduction law passed by the previous Liberal government. Just before Christmas, Children, Community and Social Services Minister Todd Smith announced his office was accepting e-mail submissions at prso@ontario.ca and would post an online survey at the government website this month for a 60-day consultation period.

The Conservative government previously cancelled two Liberal poverty-reduction strategies: a basic income pilot program and an increase in the minimum wage to $15 per hour. It lists job creation as its top poverty reduction strategy.

Stopping by for lunch at The Good Shepherd, Rico Mancini doesn’t mention job creation when asked how the government should reduce poverty.

“They should give everybody housing,” he said. “They’re building all kinds of condos. That’s all I see is condos, condos, condos being built.”

Mancini figures he can afford about $500 a month in rent. The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation currently pegs the average rent for a bachelor apartment in the Greater Toronto Area — from Oshawa to Burlington and north to Barrie — at $1,080. The average in the City of Toronto proper is higher.

“I’m sure this poverty thing can be solved, because they’re building condos — you know that — all over the place,” he said. “So they can house everybody. There’s no reason why anybody in Canada should be homeless. I can’t see it. We’re not a Third World country, are we?”

Ontario’s November unemployment rate of 5.6 per cent was one of the lowest in living memory, but poverty rates remain stubbornly high, with one in seven Ontarians living below the poverty line. According to the government’s most recent (2018) poverty reduction annual report:

  • 410,000, or 15.4 per cent, of Ontario children live in poverty, up by 28,000 or one per cent.
  • 74,000 households with children (5.1 per cent) live in deep poverty and spend more than 40 per cent of gross income on housing.
  • Almost 11 per cent of youth (15 to 29), or 308,200 of young people, are not working, not in school and not in training.
  • Almost 60,000 Ontarians between 25 and 64 face long-term unemployment.
  • The poverty rate for the disabled is 20 per cent.

Dawn Desjardins, the Royal Bank of Canada’s deputy chief economist, says unemployment and poverty are related. Canada’s poverty rate fell from 12.1 per cent in 2015 to 9.5 per cent in 2017 at the same time that unemployment dropped from 6.9 to 6.3 per cent.

“For an economy to perform efficiently, both labour and capital need to be fully employed. If poverty acts as an impediment to education and health outcomes, then society suffers,” Desjardins wrote in an e-mail to The Catholic Register.

“Job creation definitely is going to help reduce poverty,” said Parisa Mahboubi, senior policy analyst with the C.D. Howe Institute.

At St. Francis’ Table in west-end Toronto, Capuchin Franciscan Br. John Frampton knows “some of our people are not employable.”

“But we have to work with them and see if they can be turned around,” he said. “We’ve got to get to know the person.”

The Interfaith Social Assistance Reform Coalition will respond to the government’s consultation despite being wary of the government’s assumptions, said ISARC chair Rev. Susan Eagle.

“We have to make sure it’s not a loaded question with the answer already prepared. That would be our concern,” she said.

Eagle would love to see everybody happy and healthy in a good job.

“I don’t think we disagree that a strong economy has the potential to help people,” she said. “But if you create a strong economy and all the job creation is McJobs — if they’re all part-time, minimum-wage, casual-labour with no benefits — a strong economy doesn’t make much difference if people are still left with employment that doesn’t meet their basic needs.”

A government spokesperson said the province wants to implement social reforms that are “employment-focused.”

“By better preparing people who are unemployed or underemployed, we can help them break free from the cycle of poverty,” said Christine Wood, spokesperson for the Minister of Children, Community and Social Services.

Wood says the existing system sees too many people cycle on and off of the two major income support programs — Ontario Works (OW) and the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP).

“Almost half the people who leave Ontario Works return,” she said. “Our plan is about a more effective and sustainable approach to helping people prepare for jobs and achieve better outcomes.”

If the government just wants to cut welfare rolls, it will run smack up against reality, said Jack Panozzo, social justice and advocacy officer at Catholic Charities, Archdiocese of Toronto. In the real world some people simply aren’t going to be able to work, he said.

Panozzo questions whether OW and ODSP are really doing what they should.

“The job they should be doing is first of all for people who will not be able to join the workforce,” he said. “Are we supporting them so they are not living a kind of permanent underclass life?”

The maximum OW benefit comes to $733 per month for a single person or an annual income of $8,796. Under ODSP, the maximum comes to just over $14,000 a year, or $1,169 per month. Ontario’s 2017 poverty line was $23,000 for a single person.

Panozzo would like the government to revive the Income Security, A Roadmap For Change report. Spearheaded by St. Michael’s Hospital family doctor and researcher Dr. Gary Bloch, the 2017 report recommended ways to simplify a system that produces about 240 different income support rates by applying 800 different rules to individual cases. Bloch’s report also recommended increasing rates but was shelved by the Conservatives.

Jobs are definitely the ideal, but poverty reduction is complicated, said C.D. Howe’s Mahboubi. “There are some intergenerational impacts. Kids born in poor families are more likely to remain poor when they become adults,” said Mahboubi.

The changing nature of work and the demands of a digital and global economy make poverty reduction challenging.

“The labour market is changing and the changing nature of the labour market is going to have even bigger impact on poverty and individual situations — finding employment and also maintaining employment,” Mahboubi said.

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