The McGuinty government’s poverty-reduction strategy is not addressing the needs of hundreds of thousands of Ontario residents. In fact, the most recent Ontario budget heightens the food insecurity people on social assistance experience and undermines the well-being of our communities.
Food insecurity means everything from being hungry to not knowing where the next meal is coming from to being chronically malnourished due to poverty. The decision to cut the Special Diet Allowance threatens access to healthy food for tens of thousands of people. The Ontario budget also reduces the real income of people on social assistance because the 1 per cent increase in social assistance does not keep up with the rise in consumer prices.
Many organizations have justly been critical of the recent cut to the Special Diet Allowance, but we want to put it in the context of two things: the systemic impacts on health of food insecurity caused by poverty; and the common resolve of our organizations to work together with our patients, clients, neighbours and fellow Ontario residents to support their rights to a decent, livable income.
Sixteen provincial health and community service organizations have signed a joint statement of concern about the health impacts of food insecurity brought on by poverty. Every day, these organizations work with vulnerable Ontarians across the province. Through these relationships and the evidence gathered from our work we know that living on social assistance often means having to choose between paying the rent or feeding loved ones.
Urgent action is needed because:
- Social assistance rates are dangerously low; they lead to food insecurity and are clearly insufficient for human health and dignity.
- Food insecurity harms health and shortens life expectancy.
- The harm and poor health outcomes of food insecurity disproportionately impact groups of people already dealing with other forms of discrimination.
- Investment in healthy food for people on social assistance will result in cost savings to our health care system and ultimately will improve overall prosperity.
McGuinty’s promise of transforming the social assistance system into one that will allow people to live in health and dignity is sound health policy and consistent with our collective responsibility for human rights. Income is a root determinant of health status. The RNAO, in its report Creating Vibrant Communities says “Where one falls along the income gradient is literally a matter of life and death. There is overwhelming evidence from academic research and our own nursing practice that those who live in poverty and are socially excluded experience a greater burden of disease and die earlier than those who have better access to economic, social and political resources.”
The cancellation of the Special Diet Allowance and meagre increases in social assistance rates are setbacks on any promised path to transform social assistance.
If a person is hungry, it is harder to learn, to work, to avoid depression, to avoid chronic diseases such as diabetes and to “eat right.” Hundreds of thousands of Ontario residents need more healthy food now.
The organizations signing this joint statement call on the Ontario government to:
- Commit to revised social assistance rates based on actual local living costs, including housing and food through a process that includes meeting with stakeholder organizations to collaboratively determine the appropriate level of support to provide social assistance recipients in Ontario.
- Immediately implement as an interim step a healthy food supplement increase of $100 per month for every adult on social assistance.
- Maintain access to healthy food through a nutritional supplement program that retains at least the current Special Diet Allowance budget allocation of $250 million.
The organizations signing this joint statement also commit to work together with our patients, clients, neighbours and fellow Ontario residents in support of their equal rights to an income that provides a life of health and dignity.
Janet Gasparini is president, Social Planning Network of Ontario; Doris Grinspun is president, Registered Nurses Association of Ontario; Adrianna Tetley is executive director, Association of Ontario Health Centres.