When Start Me Up Niagara (SMUN) and the Niagara North Community Legal Clinic (NNCLC) decided to host a roundtable discussion on social assistance reform, they were hoping to get about 35 people to show up; instead they got almost twice that. The discussion was held to give those living on social assistance a chance to have their voices heard through a report being tabled with the Commission on the Review of Social Assistance.

The Commission, which the provincial government announced last November, has been conducting public consultations across the province this summer, but Commissioners Frances Lankin and Munir Sheikh were only in Niagara one day with only one session of that day devoted to hearing from those with lived experience. Knowing that many more individuals living on either Ontario Works (OW) or the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) would like to have their say, the executive directors of SMUN and NNCLC—Susan Venditti and Jennifer Pothier, respectively—decided to host an event that would form a report to be submitted to the Commission by its Sept. 1 deadline. Knowing this columnist’s bent toward social justice issues, I was asked to co–facilitate the discussion with Pothier.

Perhaps because of attendance at other similar events, Venditti said she’d be happy if 35 people turned out. But even before the doors opened for people to sign up, a long line up had formed. 68 people ultimately participated in the nearly 2.5 hour event, which was comprised of individual comments and group table discussion giving every participant the chance to get their views on the record.

The discussion began with each participant being asked, “If you could change one thing about OW or ODSP, what would it be?” Considering how criminally inadequate these rates are, it wasn’t a big surprise that several wished for an increase in rates. Currently, a single individual (one of the largest segments of the caseload in Niagara and across the province) on OW gets just $592 a month while a single individual on ODSP gets $1,053. These rates are scheduled to increase by a whopping one percent in November thanks to a generous Premier Dalton McGuinty. After this latest measly increase is taken into account, that single on OW will receive $598 with the same on ODSP receiving $1,064. If it weren’t for the fact people on social assistance are barely surviving, one’s almost tempted to say, ‘Don’t spend it all in the same place.’
The second common wish centred around either enhanced employment supports or a job. This stands in sharp contrast to the picture the Mike Harris Conservatives used to like to paint of a bunch of people looking only for a handout. He used this myth to help win public approval for his government’s gutting of social assistance rates by 21.6 percent in 1995.

Sadly, though, with the economy still trying to recover, many of those hoping for a job will probably be left waiting a while longer. If anything, it’s because of the massive number of job losses Ontario experienced before the official start of the recession in 2008 and since that time that led many to OW in the first place. Despite another of those myths Harris loved to promulgate, people aren’t quitting their jobs just so they can do nothing and get paid for it. (This myth always rang hollow because even before the Harris cuts, OW rates were still below the poverty line. For that very reason, it always invited the question, ‘Who in their right mind would quit a job just so they could face regular hunger and potential homelessness?’ Then again, I’ve since learned that when it comes to Conservatives, they never let facts or reality get in the way of a good spin.) People are on OW not because they quit their job but because their job went to another country or was eliminated.

One woman had a wish many of us take for granted: a nice, white smile. Just imagine what a knock on one’s self–esteem it’d be to smile in the mirror only to see rotting or missing teeth. But also consider her chances for employment. Who is going to hire someone with a mouth full of rotting or missing teeth? Teeth that are rotting or missing thanks to trying to survive on soup kitchen and food bank food without any real dental attention thanks to the very government that happily promotes its poverty reduction strategy. The only dental services an adult on OW will get is the removal of a tooth and that’s only if they’re experiencing pain.

Some found it hard to narrow down to one, but considering this was the first time many had been asked for their views, they can’t be faulted. If anything, I was surprised at how well many expressed their hopes and suggestions for reform. And like Pothier and Venditti, I was also dumbfounded at some of the stupid rules people have faced under these programs. Even I, a true cynic, was shocked at some of the downright petty things these people have had to face.

But I’m reminded that if McGuinty had kept some of the promises he made in 2003 and 2007, this roundtable wouldn’t have been necessary. In 2003, his Liberals promised to not only increase social assistance rates, but to index them with inflation. Since 2005, his government has increased rates almost every year but at rates below the rate of inflation. We’re now in a situation where, according to Campaign 2000, “in real dollars, social assistance rates are lower now than at any time since 1967.” That’s a distinction even the miserly Harris government never achieved. And for that woman whose only wish was a white smile, there was McGuinty’s 2007 promise to create a dental program for low–income families. In that same election, he also promised to “make real progress on poverty reduction” within this last term. Instead, poverty has increased in the last term.

I only hope, for the sake of those who came out to express their hopes and views, that the eventual report the Commission tables with the government next summer is acted upon. Before then, whoever is elected in October could get a head start by implementing the $100 healthy food supplement anti–poverty groups and others have asked the Liberals to implement for the last two years.

See this article on The View’s website