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December 30, 2010

Cutting health costs by cutting poverty


What does Putting Food in the Budget have to do with health care spending in Canada?

If you are at all familiar with the new knowledge about the social determinants of health you will know the answer.

Poverty and inequality make people sick.

Reducing poverty and inequality pays off in better health and lower health care costs.

Diabetes, for example, is an illness with especially strong links to poverty and inequality. Incredibly, poverty is a greater risk factor in diabetes than diet or exercise. Canadians with annual incomes under $30,000 are at least twice as likely to contract diabetes as those with incomes over $80,000. Poverty thus drives up the overall incidence of diabetes – and public-health costs in the process.

Researchers estimate that one in 10 hospital admissions in Canada are due to diabetes and its complications; the Canadian Diabetes Association tallies total direct health costs at over $13-billion per year.

Ironically, however, while medicare shells out billions to treat diabetes, we penny-pinch when it comes to supporting poor people so they don’t get it in the first place. Ottawa denies employment insurance to most of Canada’s unemployed; meanwhile, the provinces underfund social assistance (even programs with direct health impacts, like Ontario’s special diet allowance).

-- Jim Stanford, Globe and Mail
The Put Food in the Budget Challenge is all about putting at least another $100 a month into the incomes of adults receiving social assistance in Ontario. Current rates are so low that people cannot afford basic nutritious foods needed for a healthy diet.

But there seems to be little political will to make that relatively small investment that can deliver big health cost savings.

The Ontario Government is preparing its 2011 budget. Why not contact Premier McGuinty  and let him know you want him put food in the budget this year?

December 21, 2010

Support the Report -- Help Make a Breakthrough on Poverty in Canada

Last week I posted about the Poverty Free Waterloo Region petition. One of the items on that petition is a call for the Federal Government to implement a strategy to eradicate poverty in Canada.

There has been movement at the Federal level. Recently the Human Resources Committee (HUMA) released a report calling for a Federal poverty reduction strategy. Karri Munn-Venn from Citizens for Public Justice gives a brief summary of that report on the CPJ website. There is something you can do to support the call for a federal plan to end poverty in Canada.

Visit Make Poverty History and send a message to Minister Diane Finley, the Minister for Human Resources and Skills Development to respond positively to the recommendations in the HUMA report. Your message will also be forwarded to you MP.

December 20, 2010

Local Food and Local Food Processing: part of a poverty free Ontario

Here is a very interesting item from the Waterloo Region Food News e-newsletter.
Small Farmers creating own Processing Capacity to fill void left by big guys

Two large global processing plants have closed in Soutwestern Ontario in the past three years: Cangro, which processed peaches and pears for Del Monte, and Smuckers, which processed cucumbers for Bick’s Pickles. In response, farmers like Wolfgang Pfenning have invested in their own processing facilities. But as Foodlink’s Executive Director Peter Katona says, while Ontario farmers are certainly capable of growing quality foods, they can’t compete on price with imported foods. Read the feature article on local processing in The Tyee, part of their larger series on scaling up local food in BC and Ontario.

It is really worth reading the article in the Tyee. There are some challenging issues we need to be aware of if we are going to achieve a poverty free Ontario.

The key challenge is that as consumers, we have to be committed to paying the real price for the food we eat if local farmers, food processors and farm laborers are going to be able to earn a decent livelihood. Farm labour costs in Ontario are higher than in other parts of the world. That means local farmers cannot compete on price with their international competition -- be that from the States, Latin America or China. It is easy to shop for the lowest price food. But that often means poverty wages for producers.

Buying local is a bit like buying Fair Trade. It means paying the higher price so that the people who produce our food can live free from poverty.

Unfortunately, not everyone can afford to make that choice. But if you can, every purchase you make of locally produced food or Fair Trade products is an investment in a poverty free Ontario and a poverty free world.

December 16, 2010

Poverty Free Waterloo Region

On Friday, December 10, I was in Cambridge, Ontario for the Waterloo Region release of Persistent Poverty: voices from the margins -- the report on the ISARC social audit. At that event, I joined other members of Poverty Free Waterloo Region in launching a petition endorsing the Regional Municipalitiy of Waterloo's work on creating a Regional Poverty Reduction strategy.

If you live in Waterloo Region, please take a moment to visit the Poverty Free Waterloo Region website and sign the petition. And please spread the word. Here is the basice message of the appeal.

Support the call for a
Poverty Free Waterloo Region!

In our community, more than 7,000 families and 12,000 single adults live in poverty. It's time to take action.

Please sign the petition to
1. Endorse the Region of Waterloo's initiative to create a strategic plan for a Poverty Free Waterloo Region

2. Call on the Regional Council to reinvest the savings from the uploading of social assistance benefits to fund poverty reduction initiatives in Waterloo Region.

3. Call upon the Provincial Government and all parties in the provincial legislature to reaffirm their commitment to the Poverty Reduction Act.

4. Call upon the Federal Government to develop a strategy to eradicate poverty in Canada.


The full declaration and petition is available at http://povertyfreewaterlooregion.wordpress.com/


December 15, 2010

A Steel and Concrete Christmas

My colleague Eileen Henderson, coordinator of MCCO's Restorative Justice programs, sent this along.

A Steel and Concrete Christmas


By ROD CARTER

It was the beginning of a three-and-a-half-year bit. I’d be spending my first Christmas in prison at age seventeen. As the judge at my trial said, “Slow down, young man!”

Prison provided me with the opportunity for introspection. Looking inward I thought, If I’m going to get out of prison and stay out, I need to make some changes.

Spending Christmas with five hundred guys can be brutal. Initiating festivities through seasonal flourishes, like Christmas trees, wreaths, or songs with stirring lyrics, was next to impossible.

The cell block was two tiers high. Each of the thirty cells had a bed, toilet, sink, desk, and chair, all in moldy green or queasy yellow. Our gray shirts and sand-colored pants were an ideal contrast to the navy blue staff uniforms. Over time, this lackluster sea of mind-numbing colors produced sensory deprivation.

The prison was home to cons serving out their allotted sentences. The usual tension mellowed at Christmas as an unofficial truce was struck between cons and officers. Some inmates and officers even went so far as to break the code of “No Fraternization Between Staff and Prisoners” to shake hands and converse. On any other day of the year, this would have been considered dangerous.

God showed no intention of neglecting us in this hostile environment. It was Christmas in prison—not merry, but Christmas nonetheless. Allow me to introduce you to a few of the guys who lived on my block.

René, a muscular French Canadian, was tattooed and scarred from head to toe from prison scrapes, street fights, and involuntary arrests. Closing in on forty, he tended to leave most of the squabbles to younger cons. Once he told me, “I’m like the old baseball pitcher. I throw as hard as I ever did, but it doesn’t go as fast.” Like most old pitchers, warriors, and convicts, René recognized the fact that he was no longer at the top of his game. He found a pen with his name on it and began writing his memoirs; he wrote himself right out of prison. René discovered salvation through a ballpoint pen. He eventually published his autobiography and received the governor general’s award for best Canadian book of the year.

Chris, a fine-looking, athletic man in his twenties, was into sports and excelled at baseball. He combed his dark hair straight back. His case received national attention. At fourteen years old, he had been the youngest person in Canada to be sentenced to the death penalty. His sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment. The institution arranged to place him in a stable workshop and to be lodged in a cell on a range that housed younger, less volatile inmates.

A few of the older officers had taken Chris under their wing, probably because they saw something within him that resembled their own children. They unofficially adopted Chris. No doubt that humanitarian act saved him from various assaults or worse. Because these officers, like many other Canadians, were convinced of Chris’s innocence, they were willing to take risks on his behalf. Several years later, Chris was released, changed his name, and relocated to a new province. He was released in the middle of the night to thwart roving news reporters. He married and lives an exemplary life.

I never saw him again, but I admire him for the Christmases he survived inside. Chris used to man the prison radio booth in the evenings. I appreciated when he’d play Bob Dylan’s music; those songs kept us connected with the community to which we would one day return.

D.J. paced inside his cell. As I looked in on him that Christmas morning, he was walking in circles, stopping on occasion to gaze at his mother’s photo. She had died in prison. He spent his childhood traveling through foster homes. As a troubled teenager, D.J. often spent time in jail. When I first entered prison, he took care of me, seeing that I had tobacco and papers until my first canteen arrived.

An important resource in my inner journey was our padre, a silver-haired former paratrooper. He established a special rapport with all of us, speaking each Sunday about responsibility, reconciliation, remorse, repentance, restoration, redemption, restitution, rebirth, and resurrection; they were lofty concepts, but when the padre spoke, we understood. Some of us grabbed hold of these concepts and began integrating them into our lives. Prison was a tough testing ground for practicing these principles.

The padre organized a Christmas Eve service. He recounted the Nativity with deep emotion and solemnity, and then we went back to our lonely cells. I wrote a letter home telling my parents about “the goodie bag” the prison gave us, which included butterscotch mints and a Christmas cake.

About 9:00 PM, D.J. lifted his harmonica and began playing “Silent Night.” His music guided us to a foreign town in another time. The cell block teetered on the edge of something supreme.

Although we were in prison, Christmas and its sacredness were not. We wept alone, because that’s done in private. That evening, no one screamed out in nightmare anguish. We slept soundly. That Christmas was simple and stunning, revolutionary and reverent.

~~

A Steel and Concrete Christmas. Reprinted by permission of Rod Carter. © 2007, 2008 Rod Carter from the book “Serving Productive Time: Stories, Poems, and Tips to Inspire Positive Change from Inmates, Prison Staff, and Volunteers” by Tom Lagana and Laura Lagana. See website: http://www.tomlagana.com/

~~

Rod Carter was the director of the Restorative Justice Program at Queen’s Theological College. He was formerly regional chaplain for the Correctional Service of Canada for five years. An ex-offender, he received a criminal pardon in 1977. He is a contributing author in “Chicken Soup for the Prisoner’s Soul,” “Serving Productive Time,” and “Serving Time, Serving Others.” He died in his sleep in May 2010.

~

from “Serving Productive Time” (for a pdf version, see: http://www.TomLagana.com/images/Carter-Steel-Christmas.pdf )

December 9, 2010

Persistent Poverty and the Rise of Canada's Richest 1%

I have been reading ISARC's latest social audit report: Persistent Poverty: voices from the margins -- Published by Between the Lines and just released this month (December 2010).

Sadly it is a familiar story echoing the four other social audits of the past twenty years. Incomes too low to live on -- whether you are working for low pay or relying on social assistance -- not enough affordable housing, hunger, lack of affordable transit. Too many of our neighbours are struggling to get by.

And we are pitching in to try to help out -- with donations to food banks and volunteering in out of the cold programs.

But it takes a toll in health and human dignity. A quote that has stuck with me:
"When you feed the poor, please ask for their forgiveness. You are giving them a bowl of soup but they give up their dignity."
You really need to read Persistent Poverty at the same time you read the latest report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives: The Rise of Canada's Richest 1% by Armine Yalnizyan.

If persistent poverty has become a hallmark of our age, it is integrally linked to what Yanizyan refers to as "the great U-turn." It is the stunning reversal in the trend toward greater equality that characterized most of the 20th century. In the past thirty years, Canada's richest one percent have reaped the lion's share of income growth. At the same time, they have seen their tax rates drop to levels not seen since before the Second World War. The trend is most pronounced for the richest 0.01 percent -- the 2,500 Canadians whose average income was more than $3.8 million in 2008.

One thing that the richest today have in common with everyone else is that most of their income comes from work. That is different from an earlier era where the wealthy received more of the income from investments.

But the wages of those at the top today far outstrip the earnings of most Canadians. So we have the reality of the people who came to the ISARC social audit and talked about their travails -- working longer and harder and not being able to make ends meet while folks at the other end of the spectrum are bringing in sums that it are hard to imagine. Can their work really be worth that much more?

Why worry about inequality?
It may offend one's sense of justice to know that the economic prosperity of the past decade has been shared so unevenly. That injustice entails social costs as well. There is compelling evidence that growing inequality is bad for societies and harms the well-being of the poor and the rich in those societies. Or in the words of Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, authors of The Spirit Level, "more equal socieities work better for everyone."

This reality suggests that if we are ever going to put an end to the persistent poverty documented by ISARC's social audit, we also need to reverse the trend that has delivered incomes so disproportionately to the richest few in our society. We need to create a more equal society for the benefit of all.

December 2, 2010

Special Diet Allowance Saved

The Government of Ontario has stepped back from its plan to cancel the Special Diet Allowance program. This is the program that provides additional income for social assistance recipients with special dietary needs due to a medical condition. (See my Special Diet Anxiety post for background.)

On Tuesday, November 30 Minister Meilleur announced the launch of the long-awaited social assistance review. As part of that announcement, she said that the Special Diet Allowance would be included in that review - which will take 18 months. In the meantime, the Government will look to the recommendations from its Special Diets Allowance Expert review panel for ways to comply with the Human Rights Code.

You can find more information about what the changes to the Special Diet Allowance will mean, including a list of conditions covered.

In short, this has been a victory for advocacy. To the Government's credit, it listened to the concerns raised by health professionals, special diet allowance recipients and many groups, including Mennonite Central Committee Ontario. Special thanks goes to the Income Security Advocacy Centre, the ODSP Action Coalition and the Registered Nurses Association of Ontario for their leadership in helping to save the Special Diet Allowance program.

November 30, 2010

Effective and Efficient: You Be The Judge

In May 2010, when the federal Government announced the end of the ecoENERGY Retrofit- Homes program, I wrote my MP to voice my protest.

I also asked for specific information about the program -- its targets and outcomes, how many jobs it created and how much public revenue it generated.

The official Government line explaining the cancellation of the program was that it was "reviewing its energy efficiency and emissions reductions programs to ensure that they continue to be an effective and efficient use of Canadian tax dollars."

The other day I received a letter from The Honourable Christian Paradis, P.C., M.P., Minister of Natural Resources responding to my query.

Here is what he had to say:

The Program has had a considerable impact on energy savings in Canada, with each participating home averaging a reduction of more than three tonnes of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. This translates into an average of a 22-percent energy saving per home.

The original target of the Program was to reduce GHG emissions by 0.48 megatonnes (Mt) but this target has been surpassed as the GHG reductions achieved are currently at 1.02 Mt. These results can largely be attributed to an increase in program funding as part of Canada's Economic Action Plan. Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) now expects to reach a reduction of between 1.29 and 1.66 Mt before the Program end date of March 31, 2011.

More than 1,700 energy advisors have been employed by more than 80 service organizations licensed by NRCan to deliver the energy evaluation services to Canadians in every part of the country. The nature of the Program has also positively impacted employment in the renovation and manufacturing industries, though exact figures are not available. It is estimated that, for every $1 invested by the Program, homeowners are investing $10 directly into the renovation sector, thus creating and supporting jobs.

Again, it is not possible at this time to determine the exact amount of money the Program has generated in government revenue as a result of its activities and impact on the job market.

I want to know what you think. Based on the Minister's response, do you think the ecoENERGY Retrofit - Homes program has been an effective and efficient use of public resources?

Why not let Minister Paradis know if you would like the Government to restore funding for the EcoENERGY Retrofit - Home program: paradc0@parl.gc.ca

November 24, 2010

Child Poverty Climbs in Ontario

The impact of the recession has shown up in the latest report on child poverty in Ontario. In 2008, the rate had climbed to 15.2%, reversing a trend of a slowly declining rate between 2004 and 2007. And if food bank demand which is more up to date is any indicator, the child poverty rate has likely risen through 2009  and 2010.



Campaign 2000's latest report card explains that child poverty would have been 40% higher if it had not been for government transfer programs, particulalry child benefits.

But the report urges the Government of Ontario to strengthen its commitment to reduce poverty in three ways:
  • Start the promised Social Assistance Review and raise adult rates with a $100 a month Healthy food Supplement;
  • Release the promised Long-Term Affordable Housing Strategy, including a new monthly Housing Benefit for low-income tenants;
  • Develop a Good Jobs Strategy in partnership with business and labour that leads to more full time permanent jobs with good pay and benefits.

November 22, 2010

Persistent Poverty: ISARC Religious Leaders Forum

On Thursday (November 18), religious leaders from across Ontario gathered at Queen's Park for the ISARC religious leaders forum. The theme this fall was Persistent Poverty, also the title of the forthcoming report on ISARC's 2010 Ontario social audit.

If you were not able to be at Queen's Park for the forum on Thursday, you can get a quick sense of the day from the ISARC religious leaders forum web page.

And here is the opening prayer from the forum.

November 16, 2010

Hunger Count at all time high

No sooner did I post about upcoming reports on poverty then I received news of Food Banks Canada's Hunger Count 2010, released today (November 16, 2010).

Hunger Count 2010 reports that 867,948 Canadians were served by food banks in March 2010. That is up 9% since 2009 and the highest number on record.

It is clear that the economic recovery has not arrived for many Canadians. And it underscores the need for Governments and communities across Canada to redouble their efforts to reduce and eliminate poverty.

Hunger Count 2010 makes the following recommendations:

1 Implement a federal poverty prevention and reduction strategy, with measureable targets
and timelines.
2 Maintain current levels of federal cash and tax transfers to provincial, territorial, and First Nations governments.
3 At the provincial government level, continue to reform income support programs of last resort, based on consultations with those living on low incomes.
4 Create a federal housing strategy to increase and monitor investment in affordable housing programs in Canada’s cities, towns, and rural areas.
5 Make the Employment Insurance system more fair, inclusive, and responsive to changing labour market conditions.
6 Increase federal investment in a system of quality, affordable, accessible child care.
7 Address the high rates of low income among our most vulnerable seniors.
8 Increase investment in the Canada Child Tax Benefit (CCTB), raising the maximum benefit to $5,100 per child, per year.

Reporting on poverty in Ontario

The next two weeks will be a busy time of reporting on poverty in Ontario. Here are some of the reports that will be released.

November 24 -- Campaign 2000 national and Ontario report cards on child poverty. You will be able to find the reports at http://www.campaign2000.ca/

November 29 -- 25 in 5 Network for Poverty Reduction's Progress Report on year two of Ontario's poverty reduction strategy. http://www.25in5.ca/

December 1 -- launch of Persistent Poverty: Voices from the Margins, the report on Ontario's social audit led by the Interfaith Social Assistance Reform Coalition. You can order a copy on-line:  http://www.isarc.ca/

December 4 -- the second anniversary of Ontario's poverty reduction strategy. Last year the Government released its first year report on December 2. http://www.growingstronger.ca/

Early December -- Ontario Hunger Report from the Ontario Association of Food Banks. http://www.oafb.ca/

The Government of Ontario is due to announce
 -- the launch of the social assistance review this fall. http://www.mcss.gov.on.ca/
 -- the long-awaited affordable housing strategy. http://www.mah.gov.on.ca/

November 4, 2010

Poverty Reduction in Ontario -- Nearing the two year mark

December 4, 2010 will mark the two year point for Ontario's Poverty Reduction Strategy. That strategy -- Breaking the Cycle -- set out to reduce child poverty in Ontario by 25% within five years.

The Poverty Reduction Act, which was passed uanimously by Ontario's legislature in May 2009, requires the Government to report annually on progress in the effort to reduce poverty. In addition to the Government's report, the 25 in 5 Network has produced its own report on the first year of the poverty reduction strategy and will be releasing a report on year two at the end of November 2010.

For a quick overview of Ontario's poverty reduction strategy, you can listen to an on-line interview with two Ontario Government officials responsible for helping deliver the strategy, Marian Mlakar, the Director of the Children and Youth at Risk Branch at the Ontario Ministry of Children and Youth Services and Catherine Laurier, a Policy Advisor at Cabinet Office with responsibility for poverty reduction and children’s issues.

This interview was done by the Tamarack Institute as part of a series looking at poverty reduction strategies in the seven Canadian provinces with those strategies.

November 3, 2010

Reducing Poverty Through Statistical Trickery?

There are different ways to try to eradicate poverty. One which has been adopted in European Union countries and seven Canadian provinces is to create a poverty reduction strategy with a goal, targets, timelines and an action plan.

Another way to reduce poverty is through statistical sleight of hand; simply stop counting some of the poor.

A real poverty reduction strategy does not simply choose to not count some people who live in poverty. Rather it relies on sound data to help identify where to focus attention.

When the Federal Government decided to scrap the mandatory long-form census and replace it with a voluntary National Household Survey, it created the conditions to undercount the number of people living in poverty and undermine the efforts of provincial government and local communities with poverty reduction strategies.

Statistics Canada explains how the shift from the mandatory long-form census to the voluntary National Household Survey will lead to bias in the data it collects. That bias results from the fact that some groups -- including people living in low income -- will be less likely to fill out a voluntary survery than a mandatory census.

...it is believed that the most significant source of non-sampling error for the National Household Survey will be non-response bias. All surveys are subject to non-response bias, even a Census with a 98% response rate. The risk of non-response bias quickly increases as the response rate declines. This is because, in general, non-respondents tend to have characteristics that are different than those of the respondents and thus the results are not representative of the true population. Given that the National Household Survey is anticipated to achieve a response rate of only 50% there is a substantial risk of non-response bias.
The Statistics Canada analysis shows that the number of households with incomes below $1,000 or with no income would have been 4% lower in Toronto if the voluntary National Household Survey rather than the mandatory long-form census had been used for the 2005 census. Similar results would have occured in Winnipeg and Bathurst, New Brunswick. By contast the voluntary survey would have shown more people with incomes above $50,000.  The voluntary survey would have skewed figures for various demographic groups.

While Statistics Canada will be making an effort to overcome some of the problems it has identified with the sudden replacement of the mandatory long-form census, it still means the data will be less reliable than before. And it will be impossible to make accurate comparisons with data from previous censuses.  That means it will be harder to see whether Provincial and local poverty reduction strategies are working or to get an accurate sense of where priority for updated action plans should be placed.

The Federal Government has made no commitment to create a Canadian Poverty Reduction Strategy; changing the census does not count as a poverty reduction strategy.

October 26, 2010

Tax Cuts Don't Come Cheap

I have had a lot of comments, by mail, in person and via friends and family, about my recent op-ed piece in the Record about municipal services being a bargain. A new report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives picks up on that theme. Where I looked at all that our property taxes buy for us, and the bargain that is, The Power of Taxes paints the bigger picture.

The Power of Taxes asks us to be more informed civic shoppers.
Tax phobia has encouraged many Canadian voters to jump at any political promise of tax cuts without asking whether it’s a good deal or a swindle.
What I find really helpful is that the study adds up the value in public services that we consume each year. "The average Canadian enjoys $16,952 worth of public benefits annually — what someone employed at minimum wage would earn in an entire year."

The report also points out that the cuts to personal and corporate incomes taxes and to the GST have delivered most benefits to people in the highest incomes brackets, but offered little for the majority of citizens.

One of the e-mails I received asked
I wonder what kind of reaction a candidate would get if she/he said we should raise taxes & fees (in the least regressive way possible) so that we can create jobs and improve our communities. They all seem to be afraid to say anything that goes against the "no more taxes" mantra.
The Power of Taxes challenges us to hold our politicians to a higher standard. It challenges us to ask our politicians to create a more fair tax system and to be honest about the need to raise revenue to pay for the public services that make our society stronger. Is it that outlandish for us to do that?

It’s not an impossible dream. In fact, a number of high profile business leaders — from American billionaire Warren Buffett to Edmund Clark, the CEO of the Toronto-Dominion Bank — declare they would pay higher taxes in order to improve the society around them.
Take a look at The Power of Taxes. It's a helpful reminder that tax cuts don't come cheap.

October 25, 2010

Persistent Poverty -- ISARC Religious Leaders Forum

The Interfaith Social Assistance Reform Coalition's (ISARC) fall religious leaders forum will be on Wednesday, November 18 at Queen's Park.

Persistent Poverty -- Elephant's in the Room is the title.

For more information about the forum and to register, visit ISARC.ca.

October 21, 2010

Ontario Sales Tax Credit -- Making Tax Time Pay

When the Ontario Government introduced the Harmonized Sales Tax it also made some changes to tax credits. It split up the Sales and Property Tax Credit into a new Ontario Sales Tax Credit and the Ontario Energy and Property Tax Credit. These new credits will be paid quarterly rather than in a lump sum at tax time. And they are refundable. That is important for low income households because it means that you can receive rebate cheques throughout the year. And because those payments will be paid in different months than the GST credit, it means that you can get a refund cheque each month of the year.

The catch is that you have to file your income tax return to get those rebates. For some people with low incomes, that can be a challenge -- due to lost ID or being homeless, for example. And for many others the only source of tax filing help is a for-profit tax business. But the fees charged to file a tax return eat into the value of the tax rebate you can expect.

There are many volunteers working through community agencies that hold free tax clinics to help people file their tax returns so that they can get their rebates. The Canada Revenue Agency provides some training for volunteers and lists some of the free community tax clinics on their website.

But what I have heard from people working on the ground, is that these volunteer tax clinics are far from being able to make sure everyone gets the credits they are eligible for. A higher proportion of families with children are getting their tax returns filed -- partly because child benefits are high enough that there is strong incentive to file a tax return. Social assistance offices in Ontario emphasize that families file their tax returns so they can receive child benefits. Tax clinics seem to reach more seniors as well. The groups that are being missed are low incomes single adults and newcomers.

One model for making sure people get the benefits for which they are eligible comes from Edmonton, Alberta. Vibrant Communities Edmonton launched a project called Making Tax Time Pay to coordinate community efforts at both helping people file their tax returns and getting them signed up for other benefits and programs.

What is needed in Ontario is a coordinated community outreach strategy like that to make sure there are enough free tax clinics that reach the people who are being missed. And this really requires resources from both the Provincial Government and the Federal Government. As a starter, the Provincial and Federal Governments could fund pilot projects in several communities to help coordinate and expand community tax clinics. Otherwise the move to a Harmonized Sales Tax in Ontario will really fall harder on people with low incomes because they won't get the refunds meant to offset the HST.

October 20, 2010

Municipal Services a Bargain

The other day a candidate for muncipal council came to my door. I live in Kitchener. The candidate started explaining his priorities. Fiscal transparency was top of the list. He pointed out how water rates in Kitchener had leapt by 54% in the past three years.

I am all in favour of fiscal tranparency. But I had to stop and ask him how much his water bill is. He was not sure. Mine is only $450 a year -- and that is after the increase. And the increase was due to upgrades in the system to assure that the water remains safe and an accident like that which happened in Walkerton, Ontario does not happen in my city. Why would I oppose raising water rates to make that kind of investment?

The local paper, The Waterloo Region Record, has led the way in suggesting that municipal spending is spiralling out of control, not only water rates but also municipal wage costs. It led me to look into how big a bite property taxes take out of my family's income. I was surprised to learn how little the impact is. My property tax bill amounts to only 3% of our househould income. And the water bill only 0.57%.

I sent the following letter/article to the Record.

======

Municipal services a bargain


Have water bills gone through the roof? And are property taxes spiralling out of control?

Jeff Outhit’s (Sept 20) article on rising water bills and the Waterloo Region Record’s (Sept 28) editorial on soaring municipal wage costs gave me reason to examine how these changes have impacted me and my family. The Record reports that water rates have soared 54% between 2007 and 2010 and that the municipal wage bill has risen 19% between 2006 and 2010.

I do not know my final income for 2010 nor do I have all my water bills come in yet this year, but I was able to compare the 2007 and 2009 figures for our household. Sure enough, the water bill had “soared” 48% in those two years. That amounted to a whopping $150 increase for our household. The cost of clean municipal water ate up 0.57% of our household income in 2009; that is, just a bit more than half a percent. That’s not too alarming.

Outhit’s article explained four reason’s for the steep rise in water rates: “The Walkerton water tragedy, environmental needs, aging systems and water conservation.” Those strike me as compelling reasons for the rise in water rates. Frankly I think it would have been highly irresponsible of municipalities to not make the investments needed to make sure we have a safe and adequate supply of water.

The Record’s editorial suggests that Municipal wages are “spiralling out of control”. Presumably, I fall into the category of the “overtaxed citizen” that the editorial defends. After all, I earn less than the average municipal employee wage. So, I decided to look at the damage my property tax bill has inflicted. Once again, the Record’s calculations have some resonance. My property tax bill rose 6.6% between 2007 and 2009. That meant that my property tax bill ate up 3% of our household income in 2009 compared to 2.5% in 2007. Those numbers do not really ring alarm bells either.

The local Community Foundations recently released their latest Vital Signs report for Waterloo Region. In it they list some of the services the Regional Government delivers: “road systems, transit, community housing, garbage collection, police services, social services, child care services, public health, Regional airport, cultural services, ambulance services, long-term care facilities, and grant to agencies and organizations.” The list is long. It does not include the services delivered by our city and township governments, things like parks, libraries and community centres. Nor does that list include public schools. Property taxes fund all of those services. And it all costs my household 3% of our annual income. That strikes me as an incredible bargain.

When I consider that the GST was cut by 2% and that I have enjoyed income tax cuts by successive federal and provincial governments over the past ten years, I really cannot complain about being overtaxed.

I want to know that the Region, cities, townships and school boards are making stewardly use of public resources. But I am less interested in joining an anti-tax crusade than I am in seeing that the people we elect implement the policies and programs that help make Waterloo Region a safe, prosperous and inclusive community.

======

What is your own experience? Do you know how much you pay each year in property tax and for water? How does that compare with your annual income?

October 18, 2010

Equality or Barbarism?

Ed Broadbent, former leader of the federal New Democratic Party and sponsor of the unanimous 1989 parliamentary resolution to eliminate child poverty in Canada by 2000, gave the Charles Bronfman Lecture in Canadian Studies at the University of Ottawa on October 14. The Star published his speech entitled Equality or Barbarism?

In the speech, Broadbent reflects on the radical shift in political perspectives and public policy between the post-World War II era and current days.
"Writing in The New Yorker magazine two years ago," Broadbent explains, "David Frum, the Canadian born speech-writer for George Bush, asserted that the conservative revolution launched by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the 1980s had as its specific purpose the rolling back of “social democracy” in the Anglo-American world."
Broadbent traces the roots of the "social democratic" perspectives that shaped Canadian politics during the 1950s, '60s, and '70s and the gradual unraveling wrought by recent governments of the social and economic fabric created during those earlier decades.

Persistent poverty and growing inequality are some of the fruits of the recent changes in Canada's public policies. Broadbent points to recent research on the ill-effects of growing inequality.

Broadbent then asks whether we will choose business as usual for as we emerge from the recent recession or whether we will seek to fashion policies that begin to close the gap in incomes and opportunities.

It is worth the time to read and reflect on what Mr. Broadbent has to say.

October 6, 2010

Post PFIB Challenge Reality Checks

I completed the PFIB challenge last Friday, just as challenge participants in other parts of Ontario started theirs. (For the latest news, see the Put Food in the Budget website).

Thanks for everyone who has followed my blog the past week -- for your questions, comments and encouragement.

This week, I have had a few post-PFIB challenge reality checks. One was yesterday. I did street outreach with Doug Johnson-Hatlem again. Yesterday, we did grocery shopping for a friend of Doug's who is wheelchair bound and lives on ODSP. He lives in subsidized housing -- Toronto Community Housing -- so he actually has some money in his monthly budget for groceries, etc. -- but his housing is ain't the Ritz believe me. He said I could keep the grocery receipt and share what we bought. This was for two weeks worth of food with $50 to spend. This is what we bought:
 -- 18 eggs
-- 3 packages of instant noodles
-- 5 packets of orange kool-aid
-- 1 bag (4 litres) of milk
-- 12 rolls of toilet paper
-- 2 cans of baked beans
--  jar of jam
-- 2 packages of mini, frozen pizzas
-- a small jar of peanut butter
-- no-name honey-nuts O's cereal
-- sugar
-- a can of chili
-- a loaf of wonder bread
-- a box of chicken burgers
-- a bag of grapes

There was more protein in that shopping cart than what I purchased last week. But as you can see, the fruits and veggies were far less than what's recommended by the Canada Food Guide.

The second reality check this week comes from the same friend who helped me with the housing cost reality check. His quick e-mail today:
"Glad to hear you made it through the week I spent over 650 weeks living that way and the pain of those days stills lingers in my mind and heart."
Give your MPP a call today and urge them to Put Food in the Budget.

Peace,

Greg

October 4, 2010

Preventive Dental Care for Kids

Friday morning (October 1) John Milloy, MPP for Kitchener Centre, was at the Kitchener Downtown Community Health Centre to announce provincial funding for preventive dental care for kids. I went to hear the announcement.

He began by reiterating the Ontario Government's commitment to poverty reduction, particularly its focus on eradicating child poverty. He named several initiatives the Government has taken: the Ontario Child Benefit, social assistance rate adjustments, increases to the minimum wage, money for student nutrition programs, child care and affordable housing, and refundable tax credits for low-income Ontarians.


Next, he talked about the Healthy Smiles Ontario program. This program aims to provide free preventive dental care to children 17 and under in families whose net income is less than $20,000 a year and who do not have access to aform of dental coverage. The program is expected to reach 130,000 Ontario children. The Government is investing $45 million a year over three years to fund the program. The program will be delivered in partnership with Ontario's 36 public health units and by community health centres and other partners.



What does this mean?
The Healthy Smiles Program is another step forward for Ontario's Poverty Reduction Strategy. Preventive dental care for children in low-income families has been a long time coming. It was first announced in Budget 2008. The new program falls short of the Government's Budget 2008 commitment to provide preventive dental care to all low-income Ontarians who don't already have dental coverage -- adults as well as children. Nonetheless, the Healthy Smiles Program is a step in the right direction. The Government had already extended the Children in Need of Treatment (CINOT) program to cover children up to the age of 18. CINOT provides emergency dental care. Now, preventive dental services are available to these children. The next step is to build on these positive iniatives and provide preventive dental care to adults in need also.

October 1, 2010

Looking for a way to help Put Food in the Budget? Call your MPP

The purpose of the Put Food in the Budget is to highlight the need to immediately increase incomes for adults on social assistance by $100 a month.

Throughout this week of the Put Food in the Budget Challenge, many people have offered me food. Sometimes I have accepted. Sometimes I have declined. Other challenge team members have had the same experience.

Those offers of help are a natural, compassionate response. But you cannot seek out everyone who is struggling to keep body and soul together on a poverty budget with a personal offer of free food.

What you can do is call your Member of Provincial Parliament (MPP) and tell them it is time to raise the incomes of people relying on social assistance, tell them its time to Put Food in the Budget.

Here are some key contact numbers and e-mail addresses (thanks to fellow Challenge members Peter Thurley and Bill Bean for pulling these together).

The Party Leaders:

Dalton McGuinty, Liberal Leader and Premier: dmcguinty.mpp.co@liberal.ola.org

Tim Hudak, Conservative Leader: timhudakco@pc.ola.org

Andrea Horwath, New Democratic Leader: ahorwath-co@ndp.on.ca

The local Waterloo Region MPPs:

John Milloy, Kitchener Centre and Minister of Colleges and Training: jmilloy.mpp.co@liberal.ola.org or call 519-579-5460

Leeanna Pendergast, Kitchener-Conestoga: lpendergast.mpp.co@liberal.ola.org or 519-571-3276

Elizabeth Witmer, Waterloo North: elizabeth.witmer@pc.ola.org or call 519-725-3477

Gerry Martiniuk, Cambridge: gerry.martiniukco@pc.ola.org or call 519-623-5852


If you are not from Waterloo Region, but still want to contact you MPP, here is how.

1) Don't know who your MPP is? Just click here, plug in your postal code, and it will tell you what riding/electoral district you live in.
 
2) Visit the Ontario Legislative Assembly page, find your riding and click on your MPP's name. Their contact informaiton will pop up.

Thank you for supporting the call to Put Food in the Budget!

September 30, 2010

Do I have to move? or If I had $100

I am still wrestling with the reality that $572 a month I would get from Ontario works does not even cover my housing expenses. I talked with Lynn Macaulay at the Homelessness and Housing Umbrella Group (HUGG) about what would happen if I could no longer afford my housing.



It would be a real crisis for me if I had to move. I have been able to get by this week with no newspaper, no internet access at home and no cable or satellite TV. But where I live has had a huge impact on being able to get through this week. I have not had to rely on a car or even take the bus because I can walk and bicycle everywhere I need to go. My next door neighbour loaded me up with potatoes two weeks ago. I can pick dandelion greens from my lawn, parsley, tomatoes, raspberries and other things from my yard. The Queens Greens Community Garden, St. John's Kitchen, the Working Centre, church and work are all close to home.

Several years ago, I had friends from church who were on the affordable housing waiting list. When they finally got a rent subsidized unit it was far from the neighbourhood. Needless to say, it made it alot harder for them to keep up their connections with their church community, although we did often drive out to pick them up for mass.

The point of this Put Food in the Budget Challenge is not just to see what it's like to eat for a week on a restricted budget. It is to press for an immediate increase of $100 a month for adults on social assistance. It has got me thinking about what that $100 would mean for me.

The biggest thing is that it means I could stay in my home. It would help me sustain the network of community that is such a big part of my life. It would still be a challenge to manage the budget. I'm sure I'd have to rely on free food alot. But it would give me stability and keep things from spiralling out of control.

Dreaming of food

The past few nights I have had dreams of food. One night I dreamed I was in the grocery store and saw that head lettuce was on sale, $1 for two heads of lettuce. But I was out of money. Last night, I dreamed I went out to dinner with my family and another family. It was one of those all day breakfast places. I had ordered an extra side of scrambled eggs. As I was about to eat them it occured to me that I was not supposed to be eating out this week. I had a crisis of guilt, thinking that I had cheated on the PFIB challenge. Just a dream.

It's 8:45 Thursday morning and I am already hungry. I had two slices of toast for breakfast, a small cup of orange juice and a cup of raspberry leaf and lemon balm tea. My oatmeal is all gone. I did not eat it all. Someone else in my household has been eating it too. But since I have been enjoying some free lunches (tuna wraps on Monday and Tuesday) I decided to get by without oatmeal for the rest of the week.

September 29, 2010

Calling St. Vincent de Paul

On Wednesday, my diet consisted of oatmeal with raisins and some powdered milk for breakfast, a tuna wrap  and two cookies for lunch (more free food at a community event), and spaghetti for dinner with a few bites of brocoli, carrots and celery. I had coffee throughout the day at work and in the morning I had a cup of raspberry leaf and lemon balm tea  picked from my backyard and dried last year.

I find that so long as I have something to eat three times a day, I can manage.

But I have been troubled by the thought that in reality my housing costs would eat up my whole social assistance cheque for the month. So I put in a call to the coordinator of my church's St. Vincent de Paul Society to see what kind of food would be available to me through them. St. Vincent de Paul delivers food hampers with food received from the Waterloo Region Food Bank. Here is the list of what I would receive (if they have enough food on hand):

Oatmeal
Bread
Margarine
Eggs
Milk (1 litre)
Canned soup
Pasta and Sauce
Canned vegetables
Frozen food (wieners or veggies or a frozen meal)

That's not too bad. That looks a bit like my $20 a week food budget. The only thing is that food hamper would have to last me the whole month, not just a week.

September 28, 2010

Free food and social networks

So far in this week, I have found that free food and social networks have been keeping me afloat

Yesterday at work colleagues who were doing a training workshop in our building invited me to join them for lunch. Brice Balmer, a fellow challenge member, was leading the workshop. Needless to say, he and I had a decent lunch, for free.

There was alot of discussion around the table about the reality for people who really have very little income for food. Most of my colleagues who were attending the workshop work directly with people in that situation. They said that when they have gatherings of participants, the food is often a real draw for people. And they always have styrofoam containers available for people to take home the leftovers.

I did not need to eat the peanut butter and jam sandwich I had packed for lunch. But I did not fill a styrofoam container with leftovers.

Supper included more free food, this time provided by a friend from Calgary in town for a conference organized by the Tamarack Institute. We had planned to get together weeks ago, before I decided to take the Put Food in the Budget Challenge. Again it was awkward. He immediatly offered to treat me. Instead, I suggested we eat at the Working Centre's Queen Street Commons. I knew that there, he could get something good to eat, and nobody would mind if I got a glass of water and ate my peanut butter and jam sandwich.

But in the end he offered me some of his pizza, a cookie and coffee and I caved.

Maybe this is another reality check for me. I enjoy a strong social network. I have access to free food at work and when I see friends -- not to mention at places like St. John's Kitchen.

But I have to admit, I felt a little uneasy as I lay in bad last night. No, I was not hungry. But, under normal circumstances, I would have invited my friend home for supper last night. And I did not feel like I could (even though my wife had cooked a great meal for the rest of the family). How long could I sustain those social networks if I could never afford to pay for myself or pick up the tab when we get together? What would it be like if I never had enough food in the house to feel like I could invite a friend over for a bite?

Reality Check 2 -- Housing

One of the assumptions in the K-W PFIB Challenge is that the housing portion of social assistance -- $356 -- covers the cost of my housing. 

I checked in with a friend who lived for years on ODSP whether that is a realistic assumption. He wrote back to say that in reality, social assistance only covers about 55% of actual housing costs.

So I did the math. I looked at my actual housing costs -- mortgage payments, property tax, hydro, water and gas. I live in a modest house. So my mortgage payments and property tax are not that high. Since I live in a household of five I adjusted the actual cost with the same formula used to develop the Market Basket Measure.

The actual cost of housing for me is $578.55 a month. So the social assistance housing allowance really only covers about 61% of my actual housing costs.

The total social assistance allowance only adds up to $572 -- $356 for housing and $216 for everything else. That means that in reality I would start the month about $7 in the hole.

So much for having $20 a week for food.

September 27, 2010

Reality Check 1 -- Getting Around

When I was leaving Waterloo Town Square on Thursday after the launch of the PFIB Challenge in Kitchener-Waterloo, Charles Nichols gave me a little reality check. Charles is a low income activist. That is he lives on a disability income and is an anti-poverty activist. He asked, "How are you going to put gas in your car this week?" A helpful reminder that living in poverty entails more than a food budget of $20 a week.

I live in downtown Kitchener. That means I do not have to rely on my car for transit day-to-day. I can walk or ride to work, to church, to the grocery store. So for a week I can probably get by without using the car. But in reality, I can easily take trips out of town to visit friends or relatives. And if time is tight or the weather is bad, I can choose to hop in the car to get where I'm going more quickly.

Dandelion greens salad

I could not blog this weekend, because I could not get to a public access computer with internet.

I made it O.K. through the weekend, although I was pretty hungry on Saturday.

Friday night for supper, I had a little bit of mashed potates, parsnips and carrots. The parsnips and carrots came from our plot at the Queen's Greens community garden -- one of many supported by the City of Kitchener. The potato came from a neighbour who had a bumper crop and has given us about a dozen.

I also had a salad of dandelion greens, parsley and tomato. The tomato and parsley came from the garden and the greens from the back yard. I have to say it tasted pretty good.

Saturday, the meals were more sparse. Oatmeal again for breakfast (with raisins and a little powdered milk). A bagel and jam at mid-morning (the oatmeal does not really stick to my ribs). A peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch and spaghetti with tomato sauce for supper. The spaghetti sure tasted good.

I spent the morning at the Kitchener Market busking with my son and daughter. On my way out, I noticed one vender had brocolo for $1 a bunch. I decided to get one with the $3 I had left in my budget of $20 for the week.

It was a bit awkward Saturday, because my wife and I had planned to get together with friends for supper. In the end, we decided to get together after dinner. Thankfully, they are understanding.

Sunday I benefited from free food. Oatmeal again for breakfast, of course. But at church we had coffee and munchies after mass. I tried to fill up on cheese and crackers and I also had some pineapple and cake. At home, I had some brocoli and tomato.

In the afternoon, I went back to church where the Sudanese Catholic community was celebrating their one year anniversary worshipping at my church. It was a lively, festive mass and celebration. I knew there would be refreshments in the church hall after mass -- there always are. But I was not expecting a full meal -- beef stew, fish and chicken over rice, a bun salad and then fruit salad.

September 24, 2010

Getting the Groceries etc.

I guess technically tomorrow is the first day of the challenge. But I started today. I had oatmeal with a some raisins for breakfast. A glass of orange juice and a cup of chamomile tea -- picked from our yard and dried last year.

I looked at the Canada Food Guide to see what I am supposed to be eating: 8-10 servings of fruits and vegetables; 8 servings of grain products; 2 servings of milk or milk alternatives; and 3 servings of meat and alternatives. I'm not sure how I'm going to get all of those things in my diet.

Friday is normally my day off. So, I walked to the Bargain Shop on King St. in downtown Kitchener with a list of groceries I was looking for and $20 in hand. I picked up a loaf of bread (20 slices), six bagels, a small jar of peanut butter, strawberry jam, some raisins, spaghetti and tomato sauce. Together with the oatmeal I had bought last week and the orange juice, that left me with about $3. I was thinking of trying to get some eggs or lentils and maybe some brocoli or lettuce. I'll have to look around and see what I can find.

A friend called around 10 am and asked if I wanted to go out for coffee. I explained that I was doing the PFIB challenge and could not afford the coffee. He offered to pay today. We had coffee and we split a cinnamon bun at the Morning Glory cafe. I enjoyed both his company and the food, because I was starting to get hungry. (Do you think the cinnamon bun counts as a half serving of grains?) We talked a little bit about how we would feel if every time we got together he paid. It's one thing to take turns picking up the tab. But if I were really living on a social assistance budget, would I be able to buy the coffee next week?

For lunch, I went to St. John's Kitchen. They were serving curried chick pea stew, potatoe salad and cole slaw. It tasted pretty good.

Next, I went to the library where I sit typing this post. I read the newspaper. (Even though we get it delivered at home, I have decided that for this challenge I would do as if I did not have a subscription. Having a telephone is more important -- although I'm not really sure the cost of local phone service is in the budget.) Then I asked a librarian where I could find a computer to access the internet. So here I am.

So far the day has gone pretty well. I am fortunate to live downtown. I normally walk or ride my bike to work, to church and to shop for groceries. I am thankful for friends already. And I am grateful for places like St. John's Kitchen and the public library.

September 23, 2010

Taking the Put Food in the Budget Challenge

I have decided to take the Put Food in the Budget Challenge. The challenge is to live for a week on the food budget an adult on social assistance has available. It's happening in fifteen communities across Ontario, October 4-11. But in Kitchener-Waterloo, the challenge is a week earlier. The launch was today at noon at Waterloo Town Square.

There are ten of us taking the challenge in K-W. We each have $20 to spend on food this week. We have each committed to blog our experience. You can follow all the blogs at www.waterlooregion.org/food .

We have been asked to start by answering a questionnaire for participants. So here goes.

Name: Greg deGroot-Maggetti

Occupation: Poverty Advocate for Mennonite Central Committee Ontario

Favourite Food: It's hard to choose. But I'd probably say lasagna (which I don't expect to be eating this week).

Guiltiest Food Pleasure: I don't know if I really have any "guilty" food pleasures. But a few things I enjoy are either a cup of wine or a glass of beer while I'm cooking supper. And I like to have a bowl of ice cream in the evening sometimes.

Family Size: 5 -- me, my wife and three kids.

How much do we spend on food a week: between $150 - $200 I think, probably more some weeks.

Why am I participating and why is the issue important to me? When the Ontario Government cut social assistance rates by 20% in 1995 and then froze it for ten years, I was stunned by the injustice and felt complicit for not having spoken up against the poor bashing rhetoric that paved the way for those cuts. I have been speaking up ever since.

That conviction about the injustice of cutting incomes of people in need is rooted in my faith. Key to that is Jesus' proclamation that he came to bring "good news to the poor" and to "proclaim the year of the Lord's favour" (Luke 4). I take seriously the spirit of the jubilee and sabbath commands in Deuteronomy (15)  and Leviticus (25), particularly the commands to be generous and open-handed to those in need and to structure society so that there be no one in poverty in the land.

In my advocacy work at Mennonite Central Committee Ontario I connect frequently with colleagues who work directly with people living in poverty -- the Circle of Friends program in Kitchener, Lazarus Rising in Toronto, and our Restorative Justice work, to name just a few programs. When I have asked my colleagues, and the folks with whom they work, what one or two key policy changes would make the biggest impact in reducing poverty, one answer comes back loud and clear: raise social assistance rates.

That reality reinforces my conviction that things have to change. But I have never tried to walk even a week in the shoes of many people I know who have to try to live with the meagre allowance provided by social assistance. This is my chance to do that.

September 22, 2010

Homelessness and Housing Security in Waterloo Region

On October 25, 2010 Ontario voters will elect new municipal governments and school boards. In Waterloo Region, a number of organizations are bringing a focus to the issues that affect the quality of life and inclusion particularly for people with low incomes. As part of that process, I had the chance to talk with Lynn Macaulay, Coordinator of the Homelessness and Housing Umbrella Group (HHUG) in Waterloo Region, about homelessness and housing security in Waterloo Region and about what municipal governments in the Region can and are doing about it.

What is the state of homelessness and housing security in Waterloo Region?
I began by asking Lynn about the state of homelessness in Waterloo Region and about the challenges around community housing programs.






What are municipal governments doing about homelessness and housing security?
One thing about Waterloo Region is that there are two tiers of municipal government. There is the Regional Municipality of Waterloo and there are also three cities (Cambridge, Kitchener and Waterloo) and four townships (North Dumfries, Wellesley, Wilmot and Woolwich). These governments have different roles and different tools to help achieve housing security and a good quality of life for everyone in Waterloo Region. I aksed Lynn to talk about the things government's in Waterloo Region are currently doing to address homelessnes and housing security.


What can the cities and townships do to improve quality of life for people who are homeless?
The Regional Government has major responsibilities for homelessness and housing security. There are also things that city and township governments can do to improve the quality of life for people who are homeless, near homeless or living with low incomes. I asked Lynn to talk a little more about what the lower tier governments can and are doing to improve the quality of life for people who are homelessnes, at risk of homelessness or living with low incomes.

If we had a million dollars...
Next we turned to some of the key needs for achieving housing security for everyone in Waterloo Region. I asked Lynn to tell me what we could do if we had a million dollars or more. It is not just a hypothetical question. Since the Province is uploading the municipal cost of social assistance benefits (Ontario Works and Ontario Disability Support Program) over the next eight years, the Regional Municipality of Waterloo stands to save about $10 million a year starting in 2011 and up to $20 million a year by 2018, when the Province has fully uploaded the cost of those benefits. That is money the Region has been investing in income security for people at real risk of homelessness. It is worth thinking about how some or all of those savings could be reinvested to help eliminate poverty and homelessness in Waterloo Region. Lynn focused on the needs for non-specific supports to help people maintain their housing. This is what she had to say.


September 21, 2010

Street Outreach

I spent the day after labour day doing street outreach with Emily Dueck and Doug Johnson Hatlem. Emily and Doug are MCCO’s street pastors working with Lazarus Rising at Sanctuary in downtown Toronto. They regularly do outreach to people living on the streets in Toronto and participate in the drop-in programs at Sanctuary – located on Charles St. between Yonge and Church Sts.


It was a beautiful day and things seemed relatively quiet. But the first two guys we met sleeping in the park next to Sanctuary told us that one of them had been beaten the other day. He still wore the evidence around his left eye. Emily explained that Sanctuary had seen a recent rise in violence, with two fights at drop-ins the week before. I wondered about what could be behind the violence. The rest of the walk was uneventful.

Back at Sanctuary, we talked with the other team doing outreach. They had met a woman – a familiar member of the Sanctuary community – who had been badly beaten by her partner. The fights of the previous week came up in our discussion. It seems those are just a small window on a rise in tension and violence among folks living in extreme poverty on the streets of Toronto these days.

Doug said its not unusual in early September for violence to erupt. At the end of August some of the programs out in the community -- breakfast drop-ins and such – take a break. Another member of the group referred to H.A.L.T. – hungry, angry, lonely and tired – as the common triggers of violence.

Through my public policy lens, I wonder what impacts policy changes will have on people and communities living on the edge. On the one hand, refundable tax credits like the federal GST credit and the new Ontario Sales Tax Credit deliver tax refunds through the year to people on low income. That can help. But people have to file a tax return in order to get those credits. And the people who are part of the Sanctuary community are probably among those most likely to not have filed tax returns.

On the other hand, extremely low social assistance rates for adults guarantee that people cannot afford basics, like a nutritional diet. A big worry is the impending cancellation of the Special Diet Allowance program. Doug tells me he knows a number of people who are very anxious about losing that lifeline to being able to afford nutritious foods they need for chronic health conditions.

I plan to do street outreach with Doug and Emily again in a couple of weeks. I will be keen to see if the tensions and violence have abated.

September 8, 2010

Race, Poverty and Municipal Elections

One of the realities about poverty in Ontario -- indeed across Canada -- is that it impacts different groups disproportionately. Among those groups are people who are racialized -- not just new immigrants, but folks whose ancestry is aboriginal, African, Latin American or Asian. Strategies to eliminate poverty have to take into account how and why it is that poverty is more prevalent in racialized communities.

This is as true in forming municipal policies as in forming provincial and federal policies. And it is important for community agencies and organizations to take this reality into account in their planning and programs.

Colour of Poverty - Colour of Change (a partner in the 25 in 5 Network for Poverty Reduction) is working to make sure the realities of racialized poverty are integral to poverty reduction plans. Their website includes a list of insightful factsheets.

For the municipal elections (October 25, 2010), Colour of Poverty - Colour of Change has produced the following resource with questions for candidates.


MUNICIPAL RACIAL EQUITY, HUMAN DIGNITY AND SOCIAL JUSTICE REPORT CARD FRAMEWORK 2010:


A civic participation tool for city elections in Ontario

Developed by Colour of Poverty - Colour of Change

This coming October, Ontarians with the right to vote will go to the polls to elect new mayors, city councillors and school board Trustees. Given that municipal orders of government are responsible for providing a range of public services and managing a number of policy areas which are basic to city life, electing the right municipal government and school board representatives is crucial for all communities.

Major municipal government responsibilities include - water, sewage, waste collection, policing, public transit, land use planning, libraries, community recreation, public health and social services, housing, fire fighting as well as economic and community development - as well as how and by whom such programs and services get delivered.

At the same time, Ontario’s school boards and the Trustees play an important oversight role in the administration of the publicly funded school system. They have a say in deciding the amount of resources allocated to ESL classes, the changes to be made to the curriculum, which new schools should be opened and which schools will be closed, as well as who gets hired and how. Equitable learning outcomes are determined by how accessible and inclusive the education system is for the children of Ontario.

Racialized communities – First Peoples and communities of colour - in Toronto and other parts of Ontario face particular difficulties: disproportionate levels of poverty, racial profiling, substandard housing, employment discrimination and precarious jobs, to mention just a few. Many racialized students are being pushed out from the school. They feel alienated and left out by school curriculum that does not reflect who they are.

The racial equity, human dignity and social justice report card framework is a tool for racialized communities to evaluate how well they are being served by their municipal governments and their local school boards. It is also a tool to help voters pose critical questions to candidates running in the upcoming elections. Compiling the report card through community fact-finding missions is a means of assessing community needs, raising them publicly as election issues, and holding elected officials accountable both during the election and afterward.



Community Fact Finding Missions
Whether or not they have a right to vote, residents in every community should be encouraged to engage in the upcoming municipal and local trustees’ election process. To facilitate community members in their civic participation, community groups can use this report card framework to ‘compile the facts’ by engaging members in a discussion about local issues affecting their lives. Community members can also be encouraged to attend local candidates’ debates to share their views on how their communities should be served and to find out the positions that the candidates take on relevant issues.

Below are:
• a list of some key questions that communities can use to evaluate racial equity to date
• a list of questions that may be posed directly to local candidates by community members


Key questions to evaluate racial equity, human dignity and social justice

In the city:
1. What measures were taken by elected municipal and school board officials in the past four years to reduce racial disparities? Were racial equity, human dignity or racial justice discussed as official policy goals, including in the municipal or school board budget setting process? How do racial equity or racial justice outcomes figure into election platforms of the various candidates?

2. Was access to services increased or made more equitable for members of racialized communities,
for example, education and training programs, after school programs, child care, libraries, emergency services? Were racialized workers hired to help provide these services? Was the hiring conducted on the basis of employment equity principles? Were racialized communities engaged in the land use planning decisions like the development of affordable housing, advocacy around inclusionary housing or inclusionary zoning, parks planning? How do these questions figure into the election platforms of current candidates?

3. Were neighbourhoods largely made up of racialized communities adequately served in the past four years in terms of the maintenance as well as expansion of infrastructure: for example, social housing, schools, accessible recreational spaces and public transport? If not, how are equitably responsive infrastructure needs accounted for in the election platforms of candidates?

4. How did policing and emergency services respond to community needs? How did they show that they were listening to community and working with them to respond to community needs? How did City Councillors and School Board Trustees help in resolving issues raised by the community, for example in areas like policing? How do the candidates standing for election show whether they are concerned about these issues and are prepared to do something about them if elected?

In schools:
1. How were racism and discrimination in schools addressed by school board trustees and other elected officials, if at all, in the past four years? How was success measured in this area? Were safe and accessible mechanisms put in place for students and parents to report racism, racial profiling, discrimination and harassment? Are there mechanisms to monitor and produce equitable learning outcomes for racialized youth in the school or board? Are ethno-racially disaggregated data gathered to monitor for instances of racial disparity or inequity in learning outcomes and/or for measuring progress over time?

2. Were there adequate programs in schools and school boards to respond to the needs of various racialized students - for example Aboriginal learners, is there ethno-racially religiously and other-wise culturally relevant and responsive curriculum & broad-based capacity to deliver it effectively, is there ESL training for new immigrant and refugee youth? Are there any pro-active policies in the schools/boards to engage ethno-racially, religiously, culturally diverse as well as immigrant/refugee parents in school decision-making?

3. How do these questions figure into current election platforms?


In both:
1.Were there any specific policies, programs or community development initiatives proposed by racialized community groups in the past four years? Were they acted upon by local officials? If not, why not? In general, how were racialized community groups involved/engaged/ treated, in school board and municipal initiatives? Are candidates including such initiatives in their election platforms?

2. Which policies or programs were created to protect against racism, discrimination, racial profiling and racial violence in the past four years? How were these policies or programs implemented and enforced? What resources were allocated and were they adequate? How do candidates currently standing for election address such issues in their platforms?


Questions for the Candidates
To find out what the local candidates may do for First Peoples and communities of colour (racialized groups), here are some of the questions that may be raised by community members.


For candidates running for City Council and Mayor: If elected, what would you do to
• make sure that racial equity, human dignity and social justice will become a dynamic and core part of official policy for the local government, and visibly and transparently incorporated into the municipal budget-setting and resource allocation process?

• ensure equitable access to services for members of racialized communities?

• implement a comprehensive Employment Equity plan and program across the municipal government – both as an employer as well as a contractor - ie. as a condition of contract compliance for outside vendors/suppliers/service providers contracted by the City?

• build and improve physical and social infrastructure including child care, social housing, accessible recreational facilities and public transport?

• address racial profiling by policing and other municipal service providers to ensure better police and other accountability to the community?


For candidates running for School Boards: If elected, what would you do to
• address racism, “colour-coded” academic streaming, and discrimination in schools?

• monitor & publicize to ensure equitable learning outcomes for racialized learners?

• ensure appropriate programs in schools to fairly and equitably respond to the needs of various populations of racialized students?

• ensure school curriculum well reflects the diverse student population with its multiple sets of realities, perspectives and worldviews?

• Implement a comprehensive Employment Equity plan and program across the local school board – both as an employer as well as a contractor - ie. as a condition of contract compliance for outside vendors/suppliers/service providers contracted by the Board?