Seeking to renew its Poverty Reduction Strategy, Ontario’s government has been asking Scarborough residents picked by local agencies what it has done right and what should change.
So far, those discussions have been behind closed doors.
After one such session at the Immigration Resource Centre on Midland Avenue, though, Scarborough-Guildwood MPP Mitzie Hunter said there was acknowledgement progress has been made but also that the government must do more.
“We know that we can’t solve the whole thing. It’s a complex challenge,” said Hunter, elected in August and now parliamentary assistant to Community and Social Services Minister Ted McMeekin.
People in the room, which included other Scarborough MPPs and city councillors, had shown a “tremendous willingness to work together” on ways to reduce poverty, Hunter added. “What’s important is we see the path forward.”
The Liberal government Hunter just joined passed the Poverty Reduction Act in 2009 intending to reduce the number of Ontario children in poverty by 25 per cent in five years.
Its consultation booklet admits it is now “unlikely” to meet this goal, “in large part because of the global recession,” but the government claims 15.9 per cent of children would have been poor without the strategy in 2011, compared to 13.6 per cent who actually were.
That, says the booklet, amounts to 47,000 children “lifted out of poverty” with their families over three years. “There is an impact on real lives,” Hunter said.
The government is now asking if the focus of its anti-poverty effort – based on the Ontario Child Tax Benefit, all-day kindergarten and more grants and loans for post-secondary students – should change.
Neville Jacobs, a board member of Scarborough Legal Services, said helping children out of poverty is a good start, but children are one part of the family unit. Ageism exists in the province, and people over 65, like himself, find it difficult to get work or are underemployed, he said.
“The elderly are often tragically regarded as worthless appendages.”
After the meeting on Friday, Oct. 4, Jacobs added he’s supporting a campaign to raise the minimum wage immediately from $10.25 to $14 an hour, “because everything has increased. Water, hydro, the cost of food and transit. It’s just staggering,” he said. “People have more and more inability to afford to live.”
The government said it increased social assistance rates by 16 to 18.7 per cent and raised the minimum wage from $6.85 since 2003. Recently, it appointed a Minimum Wage Advisory Panel as anti-poverty activists stepped up pressure for a raise to $14.
Activists from the advocacy group ACORN said they would try to present Premier Kathleen Wynne with a turkey burger for Thanksgiving at her North York constituency office Friday, Oct. 11, in “mock appreciation” of her government’s efforts on the minimum wage so far.
Holding a consultation in the middle of the day seemed wrong to another participant. Without youth or other “at risk” residents in the room, the meeting was “not a true temperature reading” of poverty in Scarborough, said Landy Anderson, manager of Native Child and Family Services of Toronto.
The aboriginal community wasn’t talked about, though a special session on its concerns was promised. Anderson, however, said problems in the community – higher unemployment, lack of education, substance abuse – demand a separate anti-poverty strategy, with funding dedicated for culturally appropriate services.
Child care and other services geared to aboriginal children reinforce their self-esteem, which leads to greater confidence and success in life, said Landy. “It all flows from a sense of belonging.”
Steve Barnes, a policy analyst for The Wellesley Institute who was not at the meeting, said a focus on child poverty makes sense and the Ontario Child Benefit “made a difference to the wallets of low-income people with kids,” though an increase scheduled for July was delayed for a year.
Poverty in Ontario is getting “increasingly older,” trapping more women and immigrants, he said. “If the kids are going hungry, chances are mom and dad are going hungry too.”
The Institute, concerned with public health issues, also believes single people on Ontario Works get “nowhere near enough” support, and the minimum wage needs to be set at a “liveable” level, Barnes said.
The province is looking at its finances carefully, but “there’s a lot of things that can be done without breaking the bank,” such as treating child support like other earned income instead of clawing it back from parents on social assistance, he added.
Barnes also said the province should make employment standards stronger and put more resources towards enforcing them. A survey of 300 recent immigrants working in Toronto by the Chinese Canadian National Council Toronto Chapter said 20 per cent were being paid less than the minimum wage and only about half received paid public holidays.
The government said questions or comments about the strategy can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org
Article by Mike Adler for Inside Toronto