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Multi-faith support to end poverty in Ontario

Religious leaders from a number of traditions expressed their strong concern this morning about the lack of attention to the issue of poverty in the current provincial election campaign.

A media conference on the grounds of the Anglican Cathedral Church of St. James brought together leaders from the Christian, Jewish and Muslim communities to voice support for a Poverty Free Ontario.

Moderated by United Church Minister Rev. Susan Eagle, Chair of the Interfaith Social Assistance Reform Coalition (ISARC), the event highlighted statements from Imam Dr. Hamid Slimi from the Canadian Council of Imams, Anglican Bishop the Right Reverend M. Philip Poole, and Myer Siemiatycki, President of the Jewish Congregation of Darchei Noam.  Rene Adams, a social activist with the Toronto Christian resource Centre and with personal experience living on social assistance also addressed the assembled community members.

Following their statements each member of the panel placed a “Let’s Vote for a Poverty free Ontario” election-style lawn sign on the grounds of St. James Cathedral to symbolize the importance of this message in the election campaign and to join in solidarity with similar events occurring in 16 communities across Ontario, many at the very same time of day on September 15.

The Sign Blitz campaign is a joint initiative of the Social Planning Network of Ontario and ISARC’s Faith to End Poverty initiative.

“Let’s Vote For A Poverty Free Ontario”




For Immediate Release:
8:00 AM, Thursday, September 15, 2011

From Cornwall to Windsor, from Sudbury to Fort Erie


Election-style signs are going up in communities across Ontario this morning, as a coalition of faith groups and community-based organizations call for making poverty eradication a priority concern in the provincial election campaign.

The Social Planning Network of Ontario (SPNO) and the Interfaith Social Assistance Reform Coalition (ISARC) are co-sponsoring Poverty Free Ontario (PFO) as a non-partisan initiative to urge all political parties and electoral candidates to make a commitment for ending poverty in Ontario in this decade. The press conference in Toronto with various religious leaders will ask the provincial political party leaders to commit to a debate on poverty.

Media conferences being held simultaneously in up to 16 communities on Thursday morning, September 15 will be followed by a “sign blitz” as teams of local supporters place “Let’s Vote for a Poverty Free Ontario” signs on the grounds of participating organizations and individuals throughout their communities.  A list of participating communities and contacts is attached to this release.

“Ontario’s poverty rate stands at 13.1%, the highest level in the last thirty years,” says Peter Clutterbuck, PFO Coordinator for the SPNO, “Community members and civic organizations in touch daily with the intolerable living conditions of low income Ontarians recognize that ending poverty is a major political issue.   For example, in Cornwall, City Council has proclaimed September 15 as Poverty Free Ontario Day.”

“Leaders and communities from all faith traditions across the province are joining in this public and political awareness campaign,” states Michael Skaljin, Executive Director of ISARC, “Poverty amidst the wealth of our province even in harder economic times is morally indefensible and we expect that political parties and candidates running for office would not only publicly acknowledge the issue but make clear proposals about how to reduce and eliminate it within this decade.”

Poverty Free Ontario urges members of the public to ask candidates during the election campaign what they and their party will do to make a serious effort to end poverty in the province if they are elected.

The Interfaith Social Assistance Reform Coalition is a provincial network of faith groups dedicated to faith-based approaches to public policy reform in the areas of social justice and poverty elimination. www.faithtoendpoverty.ca

Poverty Free Ontario is an initiative of the Social Planning Network of Ontario (SPNO) working with local community groups across the province www.povertyfreeontario.ca


Media Contacts:

Peter Clutterbuck, SPNO, 416-738-3228 and 416-653-7947,  pclutterbuck@spno.ca

Bruce Sudds, ISARC, 416-931-3643, media@isarc.ca

See list of participating communities attached

Let’s Vote for a Poverty Free Ontario – Sign and Brochure


Commissioners Consult with Poverty Free Ontario Cross-Community Leaders

On Friday morning, July 29 twenty-five leaders from seventeen communities across Ontario participated in a tele-conference call with Social Assistance Review Commissioners Frances Lankin and Munir Sheikh.

Peter Clutterbuck, Coordinator and Janet Gasparini, Chairperson of the Social Planning Network of Ontario (SPNO), opened the ‘tele-meeting’ and set the context with a review of the work that Poverty Free Ontario is doing across the province.

Marvyn Novick, Policy Contributor to SPNO, summarized several key messages that a larger group of PFO leaders had developed in a planning meeting for this call on July 27. These were:

  • Poverty in Ontario is a social and moral crisis with record numbers of people in deep poverty (below 80% of the poverty line) living in chronic cycles of hardship and hunger and contending with unfair and stigmatizing stereotypes.
  • Importance of the Commissioners supporting the mission of ending poverty via a two-track approach by recommending immediate action on benefit adequacy and proposing a comprehensive plan in their final report commitment to end deep poverty in the province by 2015.
  • Asking the Commissioners to report what they heard in their community consultations regardless of the interpretation of their mandate or terms of reference by their political masters (e.g. link between social assistance and labour market conditions – the poverty trap).
  • Request the Commissioners’ leadership in helping communities across the province make poverty eradication an election issue by releasing an interim report on what they were hearing from communities in early September.

Several PFO leaders followed to offer views from a variety of perspectives across the province:

  • Rev. Maggie Helwig of the Anglican Diocese of Toronto and also representing the Interfaith Social Assistance Reform Coalition (ISARC), SPNO’s partner in Poverty Free Ontario, pointed out that local faith groups see the “intolerable reality” of poverty everyday through their ministries and asserted that it is morally wrong to continue pitting working poor people and people on welfare against each other as “deserving” and “undeserving”.
  • Tami Boudreau, Poverty Reduction Network of the District of Parry Sound, spoke eloquently of her experience as a single mom forced onto the system through a marriage breakdown and encountering multiple barriers to her persistent efforts to improve her education and get work.
  • Lorena Shepley, Pathway to Potential in Windsor, offered several examples of barriers presented by ODSP to her attempts to get the kind of work that she could manage as a person with a disability.
  • Gracia Janes, Social Assistance Reform Network of Niagara, summarized the strong local level support for the $100 a month Healthy Food Supplement as evident by municipal council resolutions passed in more than ten local and regional municipalities and by multiple community and provincial resolutions such as the Provincial Council of Women of Ontario.
  • Linda Terry, Social Planning Council of Cambridge and North Dumfries and Roundtable for a Poverty Free Cambridge, provided a short summary of a community forum on social assistance held on July 19, in which one of the recommendations was that the Commissioners release an interim report to help communities across the province make poverty eradication an election issue.

Commissioners Lankin and Sheikh expressed appreciation for this input. They did express their understanding of the link between social assistance reform and labour market conditions and acknowledged that the two worlds could not be viewed in isolation of each other. They will comment on this reality, although recommendations on the labour market are not within the Commission’s mandate.

The Commissioners expressed interest in community views on extending coverage for certain health benefits now available only to social assistance recipients to low wage working people also.

There was a discussion on the fiscal climate for making reform in which the prevalent mood is for spending restraint and tax cutting. Commissioner Lankin found helpful Marvyn Novick’s suggestion that the issue could be re-framed as a “collective challenge” — ” How do we show prudent stewardship of our fiscal resources to help people earn their way out of poverty?” Poverty Free Ontario Bulletin #4 has outlined several fiscal options for serious social assistance reform.

Several participants in the tele-call pressed for the Commissioners to issue an interim report by September. Tom Pearson of the Poverty Action for Change Coalition in York Region especially appealed for a “sense of urgency” about moving on poverty in some concrete ways as another cold winter approaches.

The Commissioners asserted their independence from any political ties in their task and held fast to their current reporting schedule of presenting an Options Paper in November for further community comment and feedback and a final report in June 2012. They left open the possibility of making some recommendations that make sense in time for the Spring 2012 Ontario Budget.

Peter Clutterbuck thanked the Commissioners and all cross-community participants and indicated that Poverty Free Ontario will continue to press for the policy proposals necessary to end poverty in Ontario.

Cambridge Forum on Social Assistance Reform Urges Interim Commissioners’ Report

On Tuesday July 19th, the Cambridge Roundtable for Poverty Eradication and the Social Planning Council of Cambridge and North Dumfries convened a community dialogue on the Review of Social Assistance in Ontario, hosted at the Cambridge Self Help Food Bank. This event included a broad community representation from the local social services sector, legal services, labour, employment services, the faith community, immigrant services, and people with lived experience on social assistance.

During this event we heard personal experiences, observations, and comments on issues and challenges with the social assistance system in Ontario and possible solutions for reforming the system to meet today’s realities. The messages were clear:

  • Social assistance rates are too low to support a dignified existence.
  • People are unable to meet their families’ basic needs.
  • The labour market does not always provide a viable path out of poverty.
  • The complex rules and changes in eligibility requirements are increasingly stringent and difficult to navigate.

We also heard many ways that the system can be reformed to allow people to move from social assistance to work and adequately support those unable to work.

Though attendees were grateful for the opportunity to have their voices heard, there was consensus that interim report of the Ontario-wide consultations was needed in advance of the October 6rd provincial election.

Over 100 Participate in Social Planning Toronto Forum on Social Assistance Review

On Thursday, July 14 Social Planning Toronto hosted a session for the Social Assistance Review Commission.

Over a hundred people, largely SPT members from all over the city, the community support sector and the community at large came to provide their input for the commission.

The input was comprehensive and wide ranging and provided an abundance of information for the commission to consider. The responses were visibly well-received by the two commissioners, Frances Lankin and Munir Sheikh.

Those present dealt with the five topics selected by the commission’s initial report. The initial report had identified the primary social assistance concerns as issues of: the necessary supports and expectations associated with access to employment; the ease of navigating the system; the appropriateness of benefits provided; the long-term viability of the system; and the integration of the Ontario system with other orders of government.

Each issue saw multiple conversations with diverse opinions clearly a reflection of the wealth of experience in the room.

Some highlights of the discussion include a focus on centralizing the dignity of social assistance recipients in efforts to reform the system. Concern was also raised with the over-emphasis on return to employment, especially given the continuing effects of the recession.

(Reproduced from SPT Soundbites, July 22, 2011)

Sisters of Providence Justice and Peace Group Addresses both Deep Poverty and Working Poverty

 On July 12, Jamie Swift, Director of the Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation Office of the Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul submitted a brief to the Social assistance Review Commissioners during their visit to Kingston.

 The full brief can be found under the Social assistance tab on this web site. The following excerpts relate to the issues of deep poverty and working poverty as discussed in the brief. 

 Working Poverty

The Commission’s Issues and Ideas background paper indicates that “the nature of work in Ontario is changing.” More precisely, however, work in Ontario has been changing  for a generation. The rise of a contingent or just-in-time labour market in the expanding service sector has been recognized since the 1980s. This is a fundamental reason for the rise of poverty and social inequality in the province. Even if a single person has a full-time, year-round job at minimum wage, their income will still be more than a thousand dollars below the poverty line. One in three Ontario children living in poverty were part of families with full-time, year-round work. (LICO-BT) However, many people trapped in the contingent labour force do not have these kinds of jobs, forced as they are into taking fewer hours whenever they can. We must understand that many employers have a stake in this labour market model for the simple reason that they benefit from the low-wage, just-in-time workforce.

Issues and Ideas asks how the needs of employers can be addressed. It asserts that “understanding employers’ needs is critical” in matching employment services to those needs. It is important to locate the interests of different economic sectors here. The largest financial institutions have produced important research on social assistance inadequacy.Toronto’s Board of Trade has promoted social inclusion, better public housing and transportation policy, more green jobs. But the mainstream of the business community has not been conspicuous by its presence in advocacy efforts aimed at improving employment opportunities for people receiving social assistance. This does not mean that efforts to reform the social assistance system should ignore the needs of employers. But it does mean that we must recognize that different economic sectors have different interests. Firms offering contract security and custodial services are likely to offer poverty level wage while major firms in resource, finance and manufacturing offer jobs with decent wage and benefit packages.

For this reason, it is up to government to do two things. 1) Play a facilitating role by engaging employers as partners, assisting them by matching employment services to employer needs. 2) Government also needs to play a stronger regulatory role by developing and enforcing labour standards that protect workers from employers seeking to take advantage of  their vulnerability in the face of ample labour supply and the structural changes mentioned above. Newcomers to Canada, uncertain about their rights and fearful with respect to their immigration status, are particularly vulnerable. (see Swift, J. et al, Persistent Poverty: Voices from the Margins,  Toronto: BTL, 2010, esp. Chapter 15 “It’s not my Country Yet…”) According to the Workers Action Centre’s  2011 report Taking Action Against Wage Theft,

The Commission needs to take the real world of the labour market — fraught as it is by very real imbalances in power — into account in formulating its recommendations with respect to working poverty. The Commission can remind government in the strongest possible terms that it has an ethical responsibility to ensure that full time work enables earners to receive incomes above, not below the poverty line. This would add momentum to the living wage campaigns currently underway in several Ontario communities, including Kingston.

The Commission also needs to promote an activist approach to social assistance grounded in the principle that it is ethically irresponsible for the government to claw back incomes of social assistance recipients who have managed to secure modest labour market incomes, at least until such time as their total income exceeds the poverty line. A job needs to be a real ticket out of poverty.

Deep Poverty

If a job is currently no guarantee of a ticket out of poverty, social assistance as presently structured guarantees a continuing cycle of hunger and hardship. The Commission’s Issues and Ideas paper acknowledges that people on social assistance cannot afford healthy diets. (This means that the poor get sicker, quicker, with substantial costs to the state — see Persistent Poverty, above, ch. 10 and 12 and a substantial body of scholarly research.) The paper also notes the “difficult trade-off” between allowing people on social assistance to eat well (“providing adequate levels of support”) but doing so “without creating barriers to work.” This balancing act is an example of pragmatism in action. It reflects an assumption, common among many economists, that people are rational actors who will choose dependence on state support over labour market participation because of the ostensible benefits offered by the former choice.

The situation of a single adult in Ontariois a case in point. The program known as “Ontario Works” provides this person with $7,325 annually, just less than 40 per cent of the poverty line (LIM-AT) income of $18,582 annually. This translates into a basic income gap ($11,230) that dwarfs this person’s income. A single parent with one child receives $16,683 on Ontario Works just short of two-thirds of the poverty line. The pragmatism that would have us believe that people choose social assistance over employment assumes that life below the poverty line is somehow bearable. It is not based on evidence, nor an appreciation of the real life experiences of low-income people in Ontario. Those experiences show that a complex set of issues – including unaffordable housing, inadequate child care, low wage work, illness and disability – characterize life on what recipients call “benefits.” The dizzyingly complex maze of rules governing social assistance, of which the Commission will hear, springs from the assumption that poor people will cheat the system and, like chronically misbehaving children, are in need of control. The system’s punitive character is underlined by the fact that Ontario Works requires applicants to divest themselves of virtually all their assets in order to qualify for benefits.

If the Commission were to address but one issue, it would be to put to rest the notion that low-income people depend on the state because they prefer social assistance to working. That said, it is important to recognize that rich countries with vibrant, competitive economies (Scandinavia and the Netherlands) have been able to design systems of public provision for their most vulnerable citizens that, by and large, keep them from falling into poverty. Countries like the U.S.and the U.K., with social assistance regimes more akin to the Ontario model, can hardly be held up as examples of economic success. Indeed, they are characterized by structurally high levels of inequality and poverty. While questions of broad economic and social policy are beyond the scope of the Commission,  the northern European countries show clearly that there are alternatives.

The first step in improving Ontario’s social assistance system is the immediate introduction of the $100 per month Healthy Food Supplement as promoted by the Put Food in the Budget Campaign. As we have indicated, progress in poverty eradication is achieved when citizens act collectively in promoting the common good. It is due to the efforts of a province-wide political advocacy effort that the Commission has come into being. The immediate implementation of the Healthy Food Supplement would not only be an  important, if modest, step in alleviating suffering and promoting healthier diets. It would also validate and encourage Ontario’s movement for social justice – the principal force for poverty eradication in the province.

We would also urge the Commission to consider the crucial role played by housing costs in perpetuating poverty in Ontario. Kingston presents a classic case study in the housing affordability crisis. Census data from 2006 show that nearly half (48 per cent) of Kingston households spend over 30 per cent of their income on shelter. Equally shocking is that over one in five households (21.79 per cent) spend half or more of their income on shelter. We urge the Commission to recommend implementation of a full housing benefit to limit rental costs for single adults and families living on low incomes to 30 per cent of gross household incomes. Finally, we urge the Commission to develop a meaningful plan for the elimination of deep poverty aimed at ensuring that no one on social assistance is forced to try to live on an income of less than 80 per cent of the poverty line (LIM-AT).

We believe that these suggestions are feasible and realistic in a rich society such as our own. The Commissioners, experienced in government and public life, will be aware that government is about making choices.Ontario can choose to eliminate hunger, homelessness and hardship. Other affluent societies have achieved the virtual eradication of poverty. We can too.

Toronto Anglican Diocese asks Commissioners to Issue Pre-election Report

The Social Justice and Advocacy Committee (SJAC) of the Anglican Diocese of Toronto made its submission to the Social Assistance Review Commissioners on July 13.

Titled “Building Justice”, the brief makes nine recommendations including introduction of the $100/month Healthy Food Supplement as the first step towards adequacy and a commitment to propose a comprehensive reform plan that will end deep poverty in Ontario by 2015.

The SJAC also asks the Commissioners to issue an interim report before the provincial election.

The Executive Summary of the SJAC brief follows and the full brief can be found in the Social Assistance Review tab.

Executive Summary

The Social Justice and Advocacy Committee of the Anglican Diocese of Toronto thanks the commissioners, Frances Lankin and Munir Sheikh, for this opportunity to express our concerns, and makes the following recommendations:

• We ask the Commissioners to propose a comprehensive social assistance reform plan that will end deep poverty in Ontario by 2015 and leave everyone living at least at the poverty line. This plan should include linking social assistance rates to the cost of living, so that rates will continue to be adequate to needs in the future.

• We ask that the Commissioners recommend no clawbacks or benefit reductions be applied against earned income for people on social assistance at least until they reach LIM-AT.

• We ask that the Commissioners recommend, as a first and immediate step, adding a $100/month Healthy Food Supplement to the Basic Needs Allowance for all adults receiving OW or ODSP.

• We ask that the Commission call for a continuing rise in the minimum wage, with a second set of 75-cent increases that would bring the basic minimum wage to $12.15 per hour in 2014, and index the minimum wage annually thereafter.

• We ask that ODSP rates be set at least at LIM-AT, with additional resources made available to meet specialized needs, and that no clawbacks or benefit reductions be applied against ODSP recipients at least until their income reaches LIM-AT.

• We ask the Commissioners to recommend that the Ontario government retain and expand the Special Diet Allowance so that all those who require medically prescribed special diets, whether social assistance recipients or qualifying low-income workers, are able to have full access to the essential food.

• With regard to the possibility of a housing benefit for all low-income people, we support this with certain cautions. First, the addition of a housing benefit must not be offset by a reduction in the shelter allowance portion of overall social assistance benefits, as this would leave social assistance recipients only marginally better off. Second, such a benefit would have to provide full coverage for shelter costs above 30% of gross income. Third, no distinction should be made between families and individuals – no low-income person should be required to pay more than 30% of gross income for housing.

• Special-purpose benefits should not become a substitute for the basic core income required to meet daily living requirements. Instead, we would endorse benefits as a complement to a system that provides more adequate rates of social assistance and a higher minimum wage.

• Finally, given that there will soon be a provincial election, we ask that the Commission release an interim report by the end of September, outlining a possible plan for ending poverty in Ontario. We further ask that the Commission take immediate action in recommending the $100/month Healthy Food supplement.

TVO AgendaCamp in Sudbury Finds Poverty Top Concern

TVO’s The Agenda visited Greater Sudbury on Sunday June 26 and engaged close to 100 community members in a dialogue to discern key questions for this fall’s election.

The number 1 question coming from the group was “In 2009 almost 1.7 million people in Ontario were living in poverty costing Ontario households up to $2,900.00 year in related costs to health care, education, housing, criminal justice and lost productivity.  Eradicating poverty would realize billions of dollars in savings in all of these areas.  What is your vision for an Ontario without poverty and how do you propose we get there?”

Listen to responses from representatives of the 3 major political parties. The poverty question was asked last, so the responses are near the end of the taping, starting around the 36:00 minute mark.

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