What Happens When The Safety Net Fails?

In a perfect world, everyone would always have enough to eat, and would never have to go without just to make rent. In the imperfect world we live in, this isn’t the case: poverty exists, accidents happen, sudden job losses occur, and people fall ill.

As a society, we established a system of social welfare programs because we wanted to take better care of each other and ensure that everyone had access to basic needs, even during hard times. It was an effort to get a little bit closer to that perfect world.

On Monday, a new report was released by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives that demonstrates the gap between where we currently are and our vision of where we’d like to be.

Specifically, this report revealed that for people receiving social assistance in Ontario, the poverty gap between their income and the Low Income Measure (LIM) hasactually widened over the last two decades, in large part due to deep cuts to social assistance in the 1990s.

The worst off are single adults living on Ontario Works (OW), for whom the poverty gap has jumped from 20 percent in 1993 to a staggering 60 percent today. The maximum they receive from OW is $681 a month, putting them far from being able to afford a standard quality of life.

This gap is very much reflected in the demographics of the people who use food banks. Our 2015 Hunger Report found that nearly 70% of food bank clients in Ontario receive support from either OW or Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP), and that single-person households are one of the fastest growing groups of food bank clients.

The low social assistance rates and lack of affordable housing in this province mean that for many people, there is almost nothing left after paying for necessities like rent and hydro. This is why people turn to food banks: because the social safety net that is meant to support them and see them through times of trouble isn’t sufficient to meet even their basic needs.

Social assistance is a system that no one wants to depend on for long: yet, it’s one that can unfortunately trap people in long-term poverty. In the words of John Stapleton: “All the things ordinary Canadians believe one should do to move off of social assistance and out of poverty are largely against the rules of social assistance: savings, earnings, training and education, saving on accommodation, getting meaningful help from family and others.”

On Monday, the Executive Director of the Ontario Association of Food Banks was on TVO’s The Agenda with Steve Paikin. She pointed out that while the number of unique individuals visiting food banks in Ontario dropped slightly between 2014 and 2015, the number of total visits actually grew – indicating that people needed to visit more frequently and required more support than they did before.

Toronto’s Daily Bread Food Bank’s Who’s Hungry report shows a similar trend: the average length of time clients are relying on the food bank doubled between 2008 and 2015, suggesting that it’s become even harder to transition out of poverty.

Needing to rely on social assistance is something that can happen to almost anyone. How many of us are one unplanned expense, job layoff, or sudden illness away from needing a little extra help?

Given the current predominance of part-time, contract, and unprotected work, and the fact that Canadian household debt has reached nearly record high levels, a great deal of people currently live in very precarious situations. When you look to the future, it’s predicted that 47 percent of jobs are at risk of becoming obsolete in the next few decades due to increases in automation.

This is all a clear sign that we urgently need to protect and strengthen our system to assist those who have fallen on hard times, for today and for our uncertain future. We must do this not just because it is the right thing to do, but also because poverty has a great to our society. Our Cost of Poverty report estimates that the remedial, intergenerational and opportunity costs of poverty are between $10.4 billion and $13.1 billion per year in Ontario alone.

Food banks recognize that hunger is a symptom of a much bigger issue: poverty. And while food banks are working hard to address short-term food insecurity, they are also advocating for solutions that address the root causes of hunger in our province. This includes improving social assistance and increasing the accessibility of our most basic needs.

In the 2015 Hunger Report, released last December, the Ontario Association of Food Banks recommended a number of measures that we believe would help address long-term food insecurity. This included increasing the social assistance rate to levels that would allow people to afford their basic needs, growing access to affordable housing through a housing benefit for low-income tenants, and ensuring that more people have access to financially sufficient and secure employment opportunities.

The Government of Ontario is currently in its second phase of their Poverty Reduction Strategy. In April, we were encouraged to see that an MPP introduced a private member’s bill for the creation of a provincial Social Assistance Research Commission that recommend evidence-based OW and ODSP rates. It would include people who have lived with poverty, and be based on actual regional costs of rent, food and other essentials.

The government also included a commitment to a Guaranteed Basic Income pilot project in their most recent budget, with hopes of getting it started by next year. While we do not know the details of how it might be structured and function yet, the possibility of providing an income floor to all Ontarians is promising, and we look forward to learning more.

People who volunteer, work at, and support food banks all hope that one day, food banks will be rendered unnecessary. This beautiful dream of a society can be achieved. But in order to see the end of hunger in Ontario, we must first address the root causes of this issue, which includes improving our social safety net and ensuring that our most basic needs are accessible to everyone.

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