Root causes of inequality and poverty

Response to Toronto Star editorial

Re: Welfare Reform: Breaking the cycle of poverty, Editorial, Dec. 4

In her announcement of the social assistance review, Social Services Minister Madeleine Meilleur unfortunately refers to reform that will “empower low-income Ontarians, including social assistance recipients, to break out of the cycle of poverty,” which the Star picked up as the title of its lead editorial.

The notion of a “cycle of poverty” suggests poverty that is transmitted from generation to generation and implies something inherently deficient in poor people rather than placing a focus on basic living conditions, which are the root causes of inequality and poverty in our society.

It is misleading to suggest that intergenerational poverty is the primary source of poverty in Ontario and Canada. Research evidence is clear that, compared to the United States and even the United Kingdom, the rate of poverty passed from one generation to the next in Canada is very low.

The structural conditions that produce high rates of poverty are:

  • Income support programs that provide woefully inadequate benefits for those unable to work.
  • Wage levels that keep people in poverty and the lack of good jobs.
  • The lack of affordable housing and other social supports such as child care.

If governments would address these conditions with investments and action and not just long-term studies and plans, they could take credit for acting to end poverty rather than trying to explain it away in intergenerational terms.

Peter Clutterbuck, Social Planning Network of Ontario

Hard To Have Dignity If You’re Hungry

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.

2010 Budget Holds Only Threat For Ontario’s Most Vulnerable

TORONTO, March 25, 2010 /CNW

The 2010 Budget fails the test of a Government committed to a comprehensive poverty reduction plan for Ontarians. An amount of $57 million is designated as an increase to the Basic Needs Allowance for people on social assistance, which is 1%, while inflation is projected to be 2% or higher in 2010.

The Government signalled major cuts to the Special Diet Allowance (SDA), while making no specific provision in the 2010 Budget. Claiming that the SDA was “unsustainable” at current levels, the Government announced that the program will be redesigned and transferred from Social Services to the Ministry of Health and Long Term Care. Government officials would give no estimates of what would constitute sustainability, but indicated that it would be well below the current $200 million program cost. Clearly, thousands of low income Ontarians now dependent on the SDA for access to a nutritional diet critical to their health will become more subject to debilitating illness and disease, likely even more costly to the healthcare system.

“People with medical conditions can get up to $250 a month for healthy food on the SDA,” says Tom Pearson, Chair of the Poverty Action Coalition for Change in York Region, “While giving a 1% increase across the Board, the Government is not saying clearly that its proposed action on Special Diet will likely mean tens of thousands of recipients will actually get a 15-20% cut in their incomes.”

“Research in Ontario clearly shows that social assistance benefit levels are so low that all recipients are subject to higher incidence of illness and chronic disease,” says Peter Clutterbuck with the Put Food in the Budget Campaign, “The inevitable cut to the SDA puts the most susceptible to these conditions at even greater risk. Rather than considering the PFIB campaign’s recommendation for a $100/month Healthy Food Supplement, the Government is actually about to take a good portion of that amount out of the monthly budgets of Ontario’s most vulnerable people.”

“Further, the Government’s claim that it is increasing rates by 1% and has already increased rates by 11% since 2003 is a charade,” says Clutterbuck, “As the Government’s 2007 Budget document itself stated, these 1-2% increases are cost of living adjustments, made to protect the purchasing power of the existing rates. They are not real rate increases. So, actually for people on social assistance in this province, Premier McGuinty’s Government has done absolutely nothing to begin to reverse the 22% rate cuts instituted by Mr. Harris in 1995.”


For further information:

Peter Clutterbuck, SPNO/PFIB

PDF version of Media Release

No Relief in Sight This Thanksgiving: 1700 Ontarians “Do the Math” and Find Social Assistance Rates Don’t Add Up

October 8, 2009

TORONTO – Thanksgiving is a time to remember that everyone should have enough food to eat — if not to celebrate with an abundant meal, at the very least to meet the minimum requirements for health and dignity. But data released from a new website shows what too many people lining up at food banks this Thanksgiving already know: social assistance in Ontario does not add up.

The Stop Community Food Centre recently launched a web-based budgeting tool called “Do the Math” ( that asks people to weigh in on what they think a person on social assistance needs to survive. More than 1,700 people have completed the survey since it launched in June 2009, and results show that even the most frugal estimates fall far short of what people receive on Ontario Works (OW) and the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP). Highlights from the survey:

  • The average total amount needed to live each month was estimated at $1,430 (compared to $572 current rate for OW recipients)
  • 83% of those surveyed believe that a single person in Ontario needs more than $1,020 to live each month (the current single month rate for ODSP)
  • Average cost of monthly shelter was estimated at $624 (compared to the $349 provided for OW recipients and $445 for ODSP recipients )
  • The average cost of food each month for a single person was estimated at $260 (compared to the Cost of the Nutritious Food Basket data provided by public health agencies that estimates the average monthly amount needed to purchase healthy food each month is $209.55)
  • 69% of respondents indicated that having Internet access was a necessary expense
  • 57% of respondent earned over $30,000 per year
  • 14% of respondents are on OW or ODSP

“Results from Do The Math confirm that many people do not believe that the stereotypes are true – that poverty is because of poor budgeting and bad choices. In fact, people from across socioeconomic groups filled out the survey and not only found that you can’t survive on social assistance, but also signed virtual postcard petitions saying that the solution must be to rebuild our safety net. Particularly in difficult times like these, having adequate social assistance as a last resort will help people to bounce back into the economy ” says Nick Saul, Executive Director at The Stop. “Currently nothing could be further from the truth, and this is a key reason why food ban and meal program use is up 30% in our organization.”

Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health, Dr David McKeown, said Thanksgiving is a time to reflect on the importance of access to health food. “People who live on social assistance cannot afford nutritious food and their health status suffers as a result. The government should address this urgent problem because social justice is an essential ingredient of health living.”

Over 3,000 people have signed the online petition or postcard that calls for government to ‘do the math’ too, and overhaul of the system that sets rates, as well as for an immediate increase of $100 as a first step to meet basic needs. The Put Food in the Budget campaign is a partnership between The Stop and the Social Planning Network of Ontario, and is endorsed by the Association of Public Health Agencies.


Media contact: Jonah Schein, The Stop Community Food Centre, 416-652-7867 ex. 235,
Cell: 647-244-3715,, Fax 416-652-2294,

PDF Version of Press release

Poverty Reduction is Smart Economics: Federal Government Urged to Act on Social Investments, Put Tax Cuts on Backburner

January 13, 2009
For Immediate Release

TORONTO – With a January 27 federal budget on the horizon, the 25 in 5 Network for Poverty Reduction is urging Finance Minister Flaherty to invest in social programs and infrastructure as the centerpiece of a much-needed stimulus package for Canada’s ailing economy.

“Mounting evidence shows that investment in social infrastructure and income support programs are an effective way to provide effective stimulus while helping Canadians through rough times,” said Peter Clutterbuck of the 25 in 5 Network. “General tax cuts are a weak substitute that simply won’t help get Canada back on track for the long haul.”

The 25 in 5 Network for Poverty Reduction is a coalition that is endorsed by 1,500 groups and individuals from across Ontario committed to a strong and effective Ontario poverty reduction plan, with the federal government playing its role. An open letter released today from the 25 in 5 Network to Finance Minister Flaherty argues that social transfers do double duty by protecting Canadians in tough economic times and stimulating local economies. It says that investments in building and repairing affordable housing and early learning and child care are the kind of smart economic choices that not only create jobs and economic spin-offs, but also bring the most benefit to those who live on the margins.

“We hope Minister Flaherty and his government will listen to the growing consensus that the best stimulus package to kick start Canada’s stumbling economy is not tax cuts, but smart investments,” said Jacquie Maund, Coordinator of Ontario Campaign 2000. “Increases to programs like the National Child Benefit, Employment Insurance and the Working Income Tax Benefit will provide immediate support for low income people who will then spend on basic goods and services in their local economies.”

The open letter says that on January 27, Minister Flaherty has an opportunity to bring together social and economic goals. By giving priority to social investments, he would not only produce the effective stimulus package that Canada so badly needs, but he would also make substantial headway toward the goal of poverty reduction.

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Open Letter to Minister Flaherty (PDF)

Media Contact:
Jacquie Maund
Coordinator, Ontario Campaign 2000
office 416-595-9230 ext. 241