On Friday morning, July 29 twenty-five leaders from seventeen communities across Ontario participated in a tele-conference call with Social Assistance Review Commissioners Frances Lankin and Munir Sheikh.
Peter Clutterbuck, Coordinator and Janet Gasparini, Chairperson of the Social Planning Network of Ontario (SPNO), opened the ‘tele-meeting’ and set the context with a review of the work that Poverty Free Ontario is doing across the province.
Marvyn Novick, Policy Contributor to SPNO, summarized several key messages that a larger group of PFO leaders had developed in a planning meeting for this call on July 27. These were:
- Poverty in Ontario is a social and moral crisis with record numbers of people in deep poverty (below 80% of the poverty line) living in chronic cycles of hardship and hunger and contending with unfair and stigmatizing stereotypes.
- Importance of the Commissioners supporting the mission of ending poverty via a two-track approach by recommending immediate action on benefit adequacy and proposing a comprehensive plan in their final report commitment to end deep poverty in the province by 2015.
- Asking the Commissioners to report what they heard in their community consultations regardless of the interpretation of their mandate or terms of reference by their political masters (e.g. link between social assistance and labour market conditions – the poverty trap).
- Request the Commissioners’ leadership in helping communities across the province make poverty eradication an election issue by releasing an interim report on what they were hearing from communities in early September.
Several PFO leaders followed to offer views from a variety of perspectives across the province:
- Rev. Maggie Helwig of the Anglican Diocese of Toronto and also representing the Interfaith Social Assistance Reform Coalition (ISARC), SPNO’s partner in Poverty Free Ontario, pointed out that local faith groups see the “intolerable reality” of poverty everyday through their ministries and asserted that it is morally wrong to continue pitting working poor people and people on welfare against each other as “deserving” and “undeserving”.
- Tami Boudreau, Poverty Reduction Network of the District of Parry Sound, spoke eloquently of her experience as a single mom forced onto the system through a marriage breakdown and encountering multiple barriers to her persistent efforts to improve her education and get work.
- Lorena Shepley, Pathway to Potential in Windsor, offered several examples of barriers presented by ODSP to her attempts to get the kind of work that she could manage as a person with a disability.
- Gracia Janes, Social Assistance Reform Network of Niagara, summarized the strong local level support for the $100 a month Healthy Food Supplement as evident by municipal council resolutions passed in more than ten local and regional municipalities and by multiple community and provincial resolutions such as the Provincial Council of Women of Ontario.
- Linda Terry, Social Planning Council of Cambridge and North Dumfries and Roundtable for a Poverty Free Cambridge, provided a short summary of a community forum on social assistance held on July 19, in which one of the recommendations was that the Commissioners release an interim report to help communities across the province make poverty eradication an election issue.
Commissioners Lankin and Sheikh expressed appreciation for this input. They did express their understanding of the link between social assistance reform and labour market conditions and acknowledged that the two worlds could not be viewed in isolation of each other. They will comment on this reality, although recommendations on the labour market are not within the Commission’s mandate.
The Commissioners expressed interest in community views on extending coverage for certain health benefits now available only to social assistance recipients to low wage working people also.
There was a discussion on the fiscal climate for making reform in which the prevalent mood is for spending restraint and tax cutting. Commissioner Lankin found helpful Marvyn Novick’s suggestion that the issue could be re-framed as a “collective challenge” — ” How do we show prudent stewardship of our fiscal resources to help people earn their way out of poverty?” Poverty Free Ontario Bulletin #4 has outlined several fiscal options for serious social assistance reform.
Several participants in the tele-call pressed for the Commissioners to issue an interim report by September. Tom Pearson of the Poverty Action for Change Coalition in York Region especially appealed for a “sense of urgency” about moving on poverty in some concrete ways as another cold winter approaches.
The Commissioners asserted their independence from any political ties in their task and held fast to their current reporting schedule of presenting an Options Paper in November for further community comment and feedback and a final report in June 2012. They left open the possibility of making some recommendations that make sense in time for the Spring 2012 Ontario Budget.
Peter Clutterbuck thanked the Commissioners and all cross-community participants and indicated that Poverty Free Ontario will continue to press for the policy proposals necessary to end poverty in Ontario.