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Advocates urge action despite budget news

By Murray MacAdam

After working hard with other justice partners to urge the Ontario government to introduce a $100 per month Healthy Food Supplement for people on social assistance, Anglicans learned on March 29 that the province’s new budget did not contains this measure, nor any other significant anti-poverty steps.

Anglicans have been increasingly active in urging the government to adopt a broad anti-poverty strategy: to include measures to help the working poor; to provide more funding for affordable and supportive housing; to take steps to help people move from social assistance to work; and to increase social assistance rates. However, none of these measures were included in the government’s budget.

The Hamilton Spectator noted, “This budget does little to breathe new life into the province’s anti-poverty strategy.” The 25 in 5 Network for Poverty Reduction expressed its disappointment in the budget, noting it contains little to help people struggling in poverty. “A 1 per cent one-time increase to social assistance rates is scant help for people on social assistance when the items they need most—food, transportation, hydro—are rising at rates higher than inflation.”

In his budget speech, Ontario’s Finance Minister Dwight Duncan focussed on deficit-cutting measures, health and education programs. He didn’t say a word about the province’s poverty reduction strategy, or about steps to help the 1.6 million Ontarians living in poverty.

That does not mean the diocese’s advocacy efforts were a failure, says the Rev. Andrea Budgey, a member of the diocese’s Child poverty Committee. “It’s not a failure because advocacy work rarely leads to quick results. Our goals may not have been achieved this time. But this is a long-term struggle. We need to keep up our efforts, especially as an Ontario election campaign approaches. The biblical test of our society’s righteousness can be seen in how we respond to the well-being of the poor and most vulnerable among us.”

“People on social assistance – the poorest of the poor – are actually worse off now than ever,” notes Maggie Helwig, chair of the diocese’s Social Justice and advocacy Committee. “A single person on social assistance received $510 per month in 1995, and now, 16 years later, they receive $592, with a $6 increase later this year. When you account for the sharply increased cost of living, they really have much less money now than when Mike Harris was in power. No wonder over 400,000 Ontarians are forced to rely on foodbank handouts. As people of faith, we must speak out and continue to speak out.”

Meanwhile, diocesan advocacy efforts continue. Archbishop Johnson will meet Ontario’s Minister of Housing, Rick Bartolucci, on April 18. Bishop Linda Nichols is seeking a meeting with Minister Duncan, to follow up on the meeting she had with him on March 10.