I had the opportunity to attend a meeting hosted by Poverty Free Ontario. There were about a hundred attendants listening to presentations and discussing how we can work to get the messages out that we cannot ignore the situations faced by those living in poverty. It was a long day for me, leaving early in the morning and not returning home until the middle of the night but I’m happily going back over my notes thinking about all the ideas presented.
One of the major themes was the lack of political will to really improve things for the poor. It is as though there was a taboo against politicians saying “we need to increase social assistance rates.” Decreasing poverty just isn’t a topic they can get elected on, and politicians are better off politically by trying to take away from the poor instead. Hugh MacKenzie, an economist with the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives, compared it to the story of a man searching for his keys under a lightpost because that’s where its easiest to look, even though that isn’t where he dropped them. It is politically non-toxic to try to search for the money to solve the deficits by going after the poor, even though that isn’t where the money really is.
Marvyn Norvick spoke about how “vigilance means unpacking the double talk. You can’t do social justice advocacy by double talking people into deeper poverty.” Refusing to index social assistance rates to inflation is equivalent to a cutting the rates. When politicians talk about “repairing a system that’s badly broken” they’re implying that we should do with the system what people generally do with badly broken things and scrap it altogether. The system isn’t really broken. The checks it writes aren’t large enough but the system itself isn’t broken.
Other examples of double-talk included how “restoring the dignity of a job” means removing the dignity from those who lack jobs. Workfare amounts to a starvation strategy to try to force people to take low-paying jobs that aren’t really worth doing. Employment opportunities need to pay living wages, not just allow people to exchange one poverty for another.
Nancy Vander Plaat from the ODSP Action Coalition talked about how we need to watch closely what changes are being proposed for ODSP and OW. Some of the proposed changes amount to robbing Peter to pay Paul. If the earnings exemption (allowing people to keep a larger amount of their earnings without it being clawed-back) is increased by removing the employment benefit, people aren’t really better off. Raising the rates for social assistance overall by cutting the special dietary supplement is going to adversely affect many people with special dietary needs. She cautioned also against the idea that simplifying the rules is going to make things better. “Simplification without adequacy is like a flat tax.” There are reasons for having large numbers of rules.
She also spoke about how moving ODSP to the municipalities will create more inequality within the province where disabled people in one city will be denied services they might be able to access in another, and she cited how the downloading of the Community Start Up and Maintenance Benefit (CSUMB) has demonstrated the same problem.
There was talk about the need to appreciate the value of public services, and to be willing to spend money on it. This was a particularly strong theme in Hugh MacKenzie’s presentation. Some of the ideas he mentioned were from his article about the need for an adult conversation on taxes.
Another aspect of Mr. Mackenzie’s presentation was highlighting how there are funds available. Removing the exemptions on the employer health tax would raise 2.6 billion for Ontario. Raising provincial gas taxes by a dime – the equivalent of B.C.’s carbon tax – would raise 2 billion. Returning the corporate income tax rates to the 2008 rates (14% instead of today’s 11%) would be another possibility. There is money. It could fund the social services we need. We need to stop talking about a revenue shortage and talk more about the social services shortage.
Hugh MacKenzie also explained what he called the Conservative Ratchet Effect. The idea is that the economy naturally cycles through recessions and recovery. During recessions tax revenue decreases and the governments see a deficit. The Conservative Ratchet Effect is that every time this happens they argue that the deficit means we have to cut spending, so they cut services. When the economy recovers there is then a surplus and they respond with tax cuts. Next recession sees another shortfall and further and so they cut spending. Through each cycle the amount of services the government provides gets smaller and smaller. MacKenzie suggested we should imagine the opposite possibility. Instead of cutting spending during a recession we could increase taxes. Next time there’s a surplus we could increase the services offered. As we move through the cycles we could see more services provided to benefit all of us living here.
I appreciated the event as a chance to meet and talk with other anti-poverty advocates, as well as the opportunity to think about how I speak about things and what ways I could work to cut through the political double-speak. We need to work to create the political will that will allow politicians to make changes, and we need to do it quickly. As Marvin Novick said, “the lives of people cannot be put on hold till 2017″ (when the proposed deficit will be gone). Change needs to come now.
As I was listening I heard people speak with guarded hope but an abundance of fear too. We have a new premier who has not signed the Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation pledge not to raise taxes and she has spoken of wanting to be a social justice premier. Those might be a good sign. Yet many people also voiced doubt that she would do more than steps, and fear for her connection with Drummund. Individuals also spoke of fear for the proposterous proposals coming from her Conservative opposition and of disappointment that the NDP are unwilling to really talk about poverty. There was an acknowledgement that it will take a lot of pressure before politicians are willing to break the taboo and offer to raise social assistance rates.