A delegation from the Put Food in the Budget Advisory group met with the Hon. Madeleine Meilleur, Minister of Community and Social Services, on Wednesday, January 20. The PFIB representatives were:
- Michelle Gratton, Social Planning Council of Cornwall and Area
- Nadia Edwards, volunteer at The Stop Community Food Centre
- Darren Nesbit, leader in poverty reduction from Sarnia
- Deirdre Pike, organizer with the Social Planning and Research Council of Hamilton for the 25 in 5 Hamilton Network for Poverty Reduction
- Peter Clutterbuck, Social Planning Network of Ontario
Minister Meilleur listened intently to Nadia and Darren who spoke of their experiences trying to live on current OW and ODSP benefit levels respectively. Michelle presented the Minister with a French translation of the SPNO’s report on Do the Math visits to MPPs across the province and summarized local action in support of poverty reduction and the Healthy Food Supplement in Cornwall. Deirdre summarized the results of the MPP visits and of more than 3,000 respondents to the on-line version of the Do the Math survey that show a difference in the range of $700-800 between what survey respondents calculate as needed for meeting basic monthly necessities and what they would get at the current single employable OW rate.
Peter explained that the two aims of the Put Food in the Budget campaign are:
- To urge the Government to act now to add a $100 a month Healthy Food Supplement to the Basic Needs Allowance of all OW and ODSP recipients so that they could eat more healthily and close the gap between the cost of monthly necessities and the amount they receive.
- To ensure that the Terms of Reference for the Social Assistance Review include a commitment to setting social assistance income support benefits at a level that meets the cost of living with health and dignity.
When asked if she would Do the Math survey, Minister Meilleur said that she is familiar with the issues facing people on social assistance so that it is not necessary for her to do the survey. The Minister indicated that she and her Cabinet colleagues recognize the connection between poverty and poor health. She also understands that recipients do not get enough and that she “would love to add a $100 month” to their benefits. She said, however, that it “is costly every time that we moved on requests like this”. All Ministries are being asked to cut their budgets because of the huge deficit brought on by the economic recession, which has meant a severe reduction in tax revenues for the Government.
Minister Meilleur explained that the Government’s priorities remain health and education and getting people back to work so that tax revenues would increase and the demands of the first two priorities could be met. She felt that people on social assistance get access to other supports such as dental and drug benefits which other low income people do not receive. Furthermore, the Government has provided 2% annual increases since 2003 to social assistance recipients, although she acknowledged that this did not restore the income loss enacted by the Harris Government “slash and burn cut” of 22% in 1995.
The Minister made the point that public opinion surveys show support for the Government’s health priority while social assistance is “not on their radar”. The PFIB representatives replied that the Healthy Food Supplement is completely consistent with the Government’s health priority since studies show the clear link between poor health, low income and high costs to the healthcare system. A 2008 University of Toronto study (Poverty is Making Us Sick) found that people in the bottom 20% of incomes in Ontario are more likely to have two chronic health conditions and that a $1,000 change in annual income in the bottom fifth of the population would produce 10,000 fewer chronic conditions and 6,600 fewer disability days over a two week period.
PFIB offered to support the Minister in making these points to the public to help build support for the Healthy Food Supplement.
The PFIB delegation also asked the Minister to support the inclusion of income adequacy in the Terms of Reference for the Social Assistance Review. The Minister’s staff suggested that PFIB should carry these recommendations to the Advisory Committee just set up to define the Terms of Reference. The PFIB representatives indicated that they would do so but also recognized that, in the end, it is the Minister’s decision about what the Terms of Reference will include, which Minister Meilleur strongly confirmed.
When the PFIB delegates referred to the Social Audit process being organized across the province by the Interfaith Social Assistance Reform Coalition, the Minister and her staff indicated that this information would also be taken into consideration in the Review.
The meeting concluded with the Minister’s agreement that she and her staff will meet again with PFIB representatives to carry on the discussion.
Social Planning Network of Ontario
January 21, 2010