I can’t bring myself to refer to the new Ontario government as “Progressive Conservative,” though technically that is the name of the party that won the June 7 election, and with 40.6 percent of the popular vote ended up with a large majority of seats in the provincial Legislature.
A majority government with less than 50 percent of the popular vote, or more, for that matter, is not supposed to be a virtual dictatorship until the next election. But that’s the way the Ford government is behaving, with a lack of thought about consequences that is eerily reminiscent of a former cut-and-slash government’s “Common Sense Revolution.”
So far, there is nothing “Progressive” in the actions of Premier Doug Ford and what he likes to call “government for the people,” especially regarding the most vulnerable people in Ontario society.
He would no doubt disagree, and likely argue that any action that helps make Ontario economically great again is progressive, even if it’s not, like reducing a previously planned increase in social assistance benefits from three to 1.5 percent.
Just so we’re clear here, people on social assistance – families with children, or single people – are living well below the poverty line on the current benefits levels.
A single person on Ontario Works social assistance gets $721 per month to pay for basic needs and housing. For a single-parent family with two children under 17 that amount is $1,040.
So far at least, Ford hasn’t cut social assistance benefits by 21.6 percent. That was one of the first actions of the so-called Progressive Conservative, “Common Sense Revolution” government of former Premier Mike Harris after it came to office in 1995.
There was no consideration of the possible consequences of such a drastic cut on the people most affected, especially the children of families on social assistance at the time. Or, if there was, it was quickly put aside in an astonishing act of cruelty bound to make the lives of the poorest, most vulnerable people in Ontario that much more poor, hungry, and unhealthy. The price in all sorts of ways Ontario society paid for that one, terrible action will likely never be known, and may still be adding up.
This image comes easily to mind: a single-parent family, a mother and a couple of young children going hungry day-after-day – the mother in tears, the children crying. Where are those children now? What are they doing with that pain and, worst of all, the anger?
So, here again, in 2018 and for another four years, Ontario has another government with no sympathy for the poor, a government that hypocritically says it is “for the people.” Apparently, the poor are not included in that, except perhaps for Ford’s Pathetic “buck-a-beer” nonsense that he officially announced this past week, with the same sanctimonious tone-of-voice he uses for election-campaign, promise-keeping announcements.
But worst of all, regarding failure to live up to the “Progressive” name, is the Ford government’s hasty cancellation of the Basic Income Program. It was an innovative, three-year, pilot project of the defeated, former Liberal government. The Ford campaign had said it would be allowed to continue in the three communities where several thousand people are enrolled in it. The communities involved are the town of Lindsay, in the City of Kawartha Lakes, Thunder Bay, and Hamilton-Brant.
The aim was to determine if a regular, basic income of up to $17,000 per year for single people, and $24,000 for couples would have positive impacts on health, education and housing outcomes for people living in poverty. People with disabilities who enrolled in the pilot programs received an additional $6,000.
Lisa MacLeod, the Ford government’s Minister of Children, Community and Social Services claimed this past week during Question Period in the Legislature that the pilot projects were failing. Essentially, she said they were expensive and a waste of money.
Many people in the participating communities disagree. At a protest calling for the continuation of the pilot project this week in Lindsay, numerous people, including project participants, said it was having a positive impact on lives and in the community.
The basic income program was part of the previous government’s “Income Security Reform” process begun in 2016, with the help of three citizen working groups. The goal was to fundamentally reform and transform social assistance, “to ensure all individuals are treated with respect and dignity and are inspired to reach their full potential.”
The working groups’ report, titled Income Security: A Roadmap for Change, was finished and made public earlier this year. It is still accessible on the Ontario.ca website.
“Ontario’s income security system affects us all,” the report says in its initial overview. “We have seen the human toll caused by inadequacies in the current system, including the deprivation, despair and lost opportunities for individuals and families living in poverty. Higher health care, social service and justice system costs and lower revenues follow as a reminder of the poor outcomes people are experiencing. The bottom line is that poverty is expensive and it costs us all.”
Those are words worth taking to heart and head, well worth any Ontario government’s consideration.
The old social assistance paradigm is overdue for thorough, positive change, change that puts an end to all the negative, knee-jerk stereotypes about “welfare” once and for all.
By cancelling the basic income pilot project the Ford government is showing its prejudicial attitude toward the poor, basically saying the poor can’t change, or don’t want to. Yes, they can, and yes they do.
As one who grew up poor, I can tell any government official all about the damage done, if they’re willing to listen. No one wants to grow up like that, or live like that. But sometimes despair takes over, everything seems like a very long way up. A little hope though, and re-affirmation of one’s value as a human being goes a long way.
A version of this post was originally published in The Sun Times in August, 2018