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Why poverty isn’t on the agenda

HAMILTON – More than 1.7 million Ontarians live below the poverty line; 89,000 of them live in Hamilton.

But that population hasn’t been getting the attention of the three major party leaders leading up to next week’s provincial election.

It’s the middle class — not people in poverty — who are the focus of the dialogue along the campaign trail, say social planners and anti-poverty advocates.

“I think that the parties have chosen to focus on middle class issues of affordability and taxes, which really neglects the fact that there is a growing number of people who are falling out of the middle class into the poverty line,” said Peter Clutterbuck, a community planning consultant with the Social Planning Network of Ontario.

According to 2009 results from Statistics Canada — the most recent figures available — Ontario’s poverty rate has gotten worse since the 2007 election. At that time, 11.2 per cent of households in the province lived in poverty. The latest numbers show the province’s poverty rate sits at 13.3 per cent.

Despite these increases, politicians are setting their sights squarely on “working families,” rather than Ontario’s poor. The reason, Clutterbuck says, is because those living in poverty are often seen as non-voters — and therefore don’t often hold the political clout of higher-income voters.

“We think that this population is perceived as not being a politically strong constituency,” Clutterbuck said. “I think the parties think the Ontario electorate is only concerned about its own family costs.”

The Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction is hoping to generate more local dialogue about poverty by asking Hamilton’s candidates to declare their support for social assistance reform on Twitter.

The Roundtable is asking candidates to tweet “If elected, I will work to reform social assistance in Ontario” by Thursday, exactly a week before the election. On Monday, the day the challenge was issued, three NDP candidates — including leader and Hamilton Centre MPP Andrea Horwath — one Green, and one Family Coalition candidate accepted.

Social assistance reform is one of the most pressing issues for the Roundtable, said director Tom Cooper. Due to social assistance cuts in the ’90s and increases at or below cost of living, social assistance rates are 41 per cent less than they were 15 years ago (if inflation is taken into account).

“We’ve heard loud and clear that social assistance reform is needed — 75 per cent of people using food banks in Hamilton are on OW (Ontario Works) or ODSP (Ontario Disability Support Program),” Cooper said. He said that shows that social assistance rates aren’t reflective of the actual costs of goods or services in Hamilton.

Both Cooper and Clutterbuck say minimum wage also needs to be addressed. Currently, if an Ontario resident earning minimum wage worked full-time for the whole year, he or she would still be below the poverty line.

“We’ve been disappointed in the lack of leadership among all three parties with putting those issues forward,” Clutterbuck said.

In terms of party platforms, Cooper said the NDP and the Liberals have some positive ideas — including a promise to build 50,000 new affordable housing units over the next 10 years from the NDP, and a healthy snack program for kids in schools from the Grits. The snack program is similar to a program the Roundtable has suggested.

“Ours, I think, is looking a bit bigger and deeper, but they’re moving in the right direction,” Cooper said.

Cooper said the party that appears to be focusing the least on poverty are Tim Hudak’s Progressive Conservatives.

“I haven’t seen anything from the Progressive Conservatives yet in terms of a poverty reduction strategy,” Cooper said.

Still, he argues all three parties should be giving greater focus to poverty.

“It hasn’t been a big part of the provincial dialogue,” Cooper said. “Governments need to step up and take responsibility.”



One Response to “Why poverty isn’t on the agenda”

  1. This guy Clutterbuck sounds pretty smart. Are they paying him enough?


    Posted by steve weatherbe | January 1, 2012, 8:52 pm

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