Archbishop urges Ontario government to support poverty reduction

Posted on November 22, 2016

On Nov. 21, Archbishop Colin Johnson and the diocese’s Poverty Reduction Committee submitted the following brief to the Government of Ontario’s pre-budget consultations.

Balancing Priorities: Living Up to Commitments on Poverty Reduction

About the Diocese of Toronto

The Diocese of Toronto, founded in 1839, is the most populous of the 30 dioceses in the Anglican Church of Canada. Our geographical area extends over 26,000 square kilometres, stretching from Mississauga to Brighton and north to Haliburton. This area includes 5 of the 10 largest cities in Ontario and covers a variety of rural, suburban, and urban communities. Some 224 congregations in 194 parishes are located in the Diocese and serve the spiritual and physical needs of hundreds of thousands of Ontarians. As Metropolitan Archbishop of the Ecclesiastical Province of Ontario, I also represent all Anglicans throughout the province.

Introduction

Anglicans in Ontario regularly work to serve their neighbours and to help the most vulnerable meet their basic needs through food banks, meal programs, Out of the Cold shelters, and drop-ins. Our parishes, from Peel Region to Peterborough, are responding to the traditions of our faith to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, and to welcome the stranger. We know, however, that our efforts can only address the most immediate needs of our neighbours, and that true change for the most vulnerable Ontarians can only be achieved through strong government action that addresses the root causes of poverty through policy changes and improved funding in the areas of poverty reduction.

Our approach to this investment is not based in self-interest. We do not come asking for increased funding for our programs or special exemptions for our faith communities. Rather we speak alongside those who continue to experience marginalization in our communities and we propose a more equitable and just vision for our society.

There have been some encouraging developments from your government over the past year around programs and services for Ontarians living in poverty. The introduction of tuition assistance for low-income students has offered the possibility of post-secondary education to many who previously faced significant barriers to access this important opportunity. Your government’s commitment to end the claw-back of child support payments for families on social assistance will make a significant difference in the lives of many when it is implemented in January 2017. And the upcoming Basic Income pilot program demonstrates your desire to examine possibilities for a fairer system of social assistance, though it cannot be seen as a replacement for making necessary changes to the existing program in the near term.

Unfortunately, many Ontarians continue to struggle daily to meet their most basic needs. The November 2016 report “Divided City: Life in Canada’s Child Poverty Capital” reveals that 133,000 children in the City of Toronto are currently living in poverty, without access to affordable food, housing, and recreation.[1] Across the province, nearly 360,000 people are visiting food banks every month in order to have enough food to survive.[2] Too many of our neighbours are on the verge of homelessness due to a lack of affordable housing, and too many in our communities are working full-time hours yet continuing to live below the poverty line because minimum wage remains insufficient.

Many of the action priorities we have outlined in this brief are requests we have made to your government again and again over the last number of years. Although it is sometimes disheartening to have to make the same requests over and over, we recognize that it is necessary in order to pursue our shared vision for a province where people are taken care of and not forced to live in poverty. The 2017 Ontario budget, once again, offers the opportunity for this government to live out the commitments that have been made in two successive poverty reduction strategies to address the root causes of poverty and improve the lives of all Ontarians.

This budget can make real inroads in implementing the poverty reduction strategy through 3 key investments:

1. Increase Social Assistance Rates and Benefits for Low-Income Ontarians

Social assistance programs such as Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support Program are vitally important to Ontarians living on low incomes, yet it is clear these programs provide insufficient support in the face of rising living costs, leaving thousands of people struggling to meet their most basic needs. While recent rate increases are certainly welcome, they continue to leave social assistance recipients unable to even keep up with their current expenses and needs. We ask that the government raise social assistance rates for all recipients by 5% in 2017, as well as an immediate $75/month increase for single adults receiving Ontario Works, and that rates be indexed to inflation to avoid recipients being left further behind as costs continue to rise. We welcome the government’s commitment to a comprehensive social assistance review that includes the voices of recipients; however, we cannot avoid making immediate improvements to these programs as we await the outcome of this review process. There is simply too much at stake for too many Ontarians.

The Ontario Child Benefit has been one of this government’s most effective tools in implementing the provincial poverty reduction strategy. Increases in 2015, as well as the indexation of the benefit to increases in inflation, have been significant in making progress on the government’s commitment to reduce child poverty rates by 25%. Exempting the new Canada Child Benefit from income calculations for social assistance has also allowed families more secure income sources. Further investment in this important program can offer greater progress in pursuit of the goal of a 25% reduction in child poverty, and so we ask that the Ontario Child Benefit be increased by $50 per child per year for the lowest income category.

2. Invest in Good Jobs

Many workers in Ontario find themselves in increasingly precarious employment situations in which employers exploit existing loopholes and exemptions to deny workers even unpaid sick or emergency leave, to treat different classes of workers differently, and to refuse to provide sufficient advance notice of shift schedules. We are hopeful that the government’s Changing Workplaces Review will offer concrete recommendations for decent working conditions for all Ontarians that will result in strong and prosperous communities.

The minimum wage has been one of the primary tools the government has at its disposal to enhance the dignity of workers across the province. The indexation of the minimum wage to the rate of inflation has meant that workers are not being left further behind as the cost of living fluctuates; however, the current minimum wage continues to mean that a person working full-time hours at this wage will remain below the poverty line. We believe the minimum wage should be a living wage, and so we join with our partners in the Interfaith Social Assistance Reform Coalition and the 25in5 Network for Poverty Reduction in calling for an increase in the minimum wage to $15/hour in 2017. This increase will bring the income of a full-time worker being paid the minimum wage to 10% above the poverty line.

3. Build Affordable Housing and Work to Prevent Homelessness

In the second phase of the poverty reduction strategy, released in 2014, the Ontario government made the bold commitment to end chronic homelessness in the province. Anglicans throughout the province share this commitment and remain hopeful that the government will develop and implement a clear plan to achieve this goal.

Several recent reports[3] have highlighted the increased costs to the healthcare, social services, and justice systems when Ontarians do not have access to suitable, affordable, and stable housing. Providing appropriate housing could result in savings of as much as $100,000 (or more) per person per year.[4] Investing in housing and ending homelessness, then, is not only the right thing to do, but is also fiscally responsible.

An important element of any effort to combat homelessness in Ontario must be a commitment to building affordable housing that will help to prevent those in precarious or unaffordable housing from falling into homelessness. Across the province, Ontarians are experiencing unacceptably long wait times for affordable housing, leaving them vulnerable to increased economic uncertainty, substandard housing, and negative impacts on their mental health. Municipalities need support to increase the affordable housing stock available to their communities, whether rural, suburban, or urban. We ask that this budget include a sizable investment in building affordable housing stock across the province, including safe and supportive housing for those living with mental illness or addiction, in order to reduce wait times. This will require a significant expenditure; however, the government’s commitment to end homelessness means that we must also work to prevent homelessness in the first place. We encourage the government to aggressively pursue funding and partnerships with the federal and municipal levels of government in this area of mutual interest for everyone.

Conclusion

A budget offers a government an opportunity to highlight its priorities and reinforce our shared values. It is a chance for our society to reflect on what we believe to be most important in the coming year. We recognize that there are considerable fiscal pressures on your government as you make these decisions, and that a balanced budget has been a priority for many in this province. However, a balanced budget that fails to address the significant need for investment in poverty reduction does not, ultimately, reflect our shared values. Making a real difference in the lives of Ontarians living in poverty requires immediate investment today, as well as long-term strategies for the future. Such investments will require the government to access some of the equitable revenue streams that are currently available to it. These could include a modest tax increase on Ontarians earning more than $150,000 or increasing corporate tax rates to 2009 levels as just two possible examples. Offering new revenue tools to municipalities would also allow for greater investment in poverty reduction at the local level.

Anglicans will advocate for these vital investments over the next year while continuing to do our part to welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, and clothe the naked. We remain committed to being part of the solution necessary for poverty reduction, however we recognize that any sustainable solution requires strong government leadership. Our food banks and Out of the Cold programs are responses to the immediate needs of our neighbours, but we know that their needs do not disappear with one bag of food or one evening spent off the street. We know that Ontario can do a better job of protecting our most vulnerable citizens, and our recommendations in this submission offer concrete starting points for action. We continue to share this government’s stated commitment to poverty reduction as a top priority. We hope to see the bold language of the most recent poverty reduction strategy put into action in the decisions made for the 2017 budget.

[1]Divided City: Life in Canada’s Child Poverty Capital”, p. 4.

[2] Ontario Association of Food Banks, “Hunger Report 2015: A Snapshot of Hunger in Ontario”, p. 3.

[3] See, for example: “Housing and Health: Examining the Links,” 2012, Toronto: Wellesley Institute;  “Housing Vulnerability and Health: Canada’s Hidden Emergency,” 2010, Toronto: Research Alliance for Canadian Homelessness, Housing and Health. 

[4] Stephen Gaetz, 2012, “The Real Cost of Homelessness: Can We Save Money by Doing the Right Thing?”, Toronto: Canadian Homelessness Research Network Press.