December 3, 2014

Strategies for ending homelessness -- no time to waste

Ontario’s second Poverty Reduction Strategy identified ending homelessness as a long term goal, but stopped short of offering specifics as to how this goal would be approached. 

In the strategy, the Government stated its intent to “seek expert advice on how to define the problem, measure it, collect data, and set targets” (p. 35). 

Much work has already been done to define, measure, and set targets around the complex problem of homeless. While developing Ontario’s strategy will require time and thought, policymakers will be able to build on the good work already being done in Ontario municipalities, other provinces, and other countries around the world. The Government should be able build on this knowledge and outline a timeline and resource plan to end homelessness in Ontario in time for budget 2015-16.

This backgrounder surveys definitions, indicators and targets currently in use in Ontario and other jurisdictions.

October 1, 2014

Targets, timelines and tracking progress on poverty reduction and ending homelessness

This blog post has also been published as a contribution to the online dialogue ON Poverty Reduction - Strategy at Work.

The Wynne Government unveiled Ontario’s second Poverty Reduction Strategy on September 3, 2014. The new Strategy puts a focus on ending homelessness. Deputy Premier Deb Matthews, who is the Minister Responsible for the Poverty Reduction Strategy, said the new strategy will continue to work on reducing child poverty – to reach the original 25% target -- as well as employment, education and training for youth. But ending homelessness stands out as the boldest goal in the new strategy.

What struck me as I listened to Minister Matthews launch the new strategy was the lack of specific targets and timelines to go with the goal of ending homelessness. The strategy obviously will need an action plan and investment strategy. But if the strategy is to succeed, it also needs clear targets and timelines, including targets for both outcomes and policy effort.

The need for clear targets and timelines for poverty reduction strategies was identified by the National Council of Welfare as the first cornerstone in their 2007 report, Solving Poverty. The United Nations Commission for Human Rights has laid out principles and guidelines for implementing poverty reduction strategies. The Commission says a poverty reduction plan “must set benchmarks (i.e., intermediate targets) corresponding to each ultimate target. As a prerequisite of setting targets and benchmarks, the State should identify appropriate indicators, so that the rate of progress can be monitored and, if progress is slow, corrective action can be taken. Indicators should be as disaggregated as possible for each subgroup of the population living in poverty.” (p 12)

September 29, 2014

Poverty Reduction Mandate

On September 25, 2014, the Government of Kathleen Wynne made public the Mandate letters given to each Cabinet Minister. Mandate letters outline key priorities for each Minister.

Deb Matthews has been appointed President of the Treasury Board. She has also been named Minister Responsible for leading Ontario's second Poverty Reduction Strategy (PRS). Here are the instructions to Minister Matthews related to the PRS.

Leading the Poverty Reduction Strategy

As President of the Treasury Board, you will appreciate just how important reducing homelessness and poverty are to the province. Homelessness costs Ontario’s economy. Investments in housing can mean savings down the road because people are healthier, more ready for employment, and participating in the community. As we look for ways to make the most of public investments, it becomes clear that human resources are the province’s most valuable asset in overcoming its fiscal challenges. When you leave no one behind, you arrive at a new destination stronger than ever.
Strategic decisions about our investments must be informed by our commitment to protecting the most vulnerable in our province. Building on our government’s work under the first strategy, I am honoured to appoint you as Minister Responsible for the Poverty Reduction Strategy and I ask that you oversee the implementation of Ontario’s new Poverty Reduction Strategy: Realizing Our Potential.
Your leadership on this file will include working with our community, businesses and not-for-profit partners to achieve better outcomes for Ontarians living in poverty. Working with your minister colleagues, I ask that you focus on:
  • Continuing to break the cycle of poverty for children and youth.
  • Enabling persons to move toward employment and income security.
  • Working toward a long-term goal of ending homelessness in Ontario.
  • Using evidence-based social policy and measuring success.
  • Continuing to call on the federal government to work collaboratively with Ontario to develop and implement solutions that meet the needs of Ontarians.

September 2, 2014

Ontario's 2nd Poverty Reduction Strategy: Expanding Health and Dental Benefits ...

Ontario's 2nd Poverty Reduction Strategy is being released on Wednesday, September 3.

No doubt it will build on things included in the first PRS. And it will no doubt incorporate things announced in the 2014 Budget.

A very important piece will be to see how the Government will expand dental and prescription drugs benefits to children and adults with low incomes. This is what the Wynne Government announced in its 2014 budget:

As part of the first Poverty Reduction Strategy, the government launched the Healthy Smiles Ontario program in 2010, which provides dental services to children in low‐income working families. Beginning in April 2014, program eligibility is being expanded to give 70,000 more children access to dental services.
The government will further integrate existing publicly funded dental programs for children into the Healthy Smiles Ontario program to provide seamless enrolment and streamlined administration.The government is also proposing to further expand access to health benefits for children in low‐income families. Once fully implemented, children in low‐income families would be eligible to receive additional health benefits including prescription drugs, assistive devices, vision care and mental health services. By expanding eligibility to approximately 500,000 children, these benefits and services would further improve health outcomes for low‐income children and help their families remain in employment.

Moving forward, the government will consult with stakeholders to explore options to extend health benefits to all low‐income Ontarians.
If it does nothing else, the second Poverty Reduction Strategy should make good on these promises. That would be an important step forward for all Ontarians.

But it will be good if the strategy moves on other things like decent employment and adequate income supports, affordable housing and a plan to tackle homelessness.

June 2, 2014

Who has the best plan to lift people out of poverty in Ontario?

May 6, 2009 was a memorable and uplifting day for me. And it happened in the Ontario legislature.

The Ontario legislature is not usually a place associated with uplifting memories. More often it’s a place known for acrimonious debate and other antics.

But on that memorable day, I was sitting in the balcony and watching the vote for third reading of the Poverty Reduction Act.

As the Poverty Advocate for Mennonite Central Committee Ontario and an active member of the 25 in 5 Network for Poverty Reduction, I had taken a keen interest in this legislation.

The Liberal Government had tabled Bill 152, as it was numbered, earlier in the year. It followed the introduction of Ontario’s first poverty reduction strategy in 2008. And it echoed poverty reduction legislation passed in Quebec a few years before.

I spent many hours in community meetings poring over the draft legislation and crafting recommendations to strengthen it. We met with members of all three parties to talk about the legislation and proposed changes.

On that memorable day in May 2009, I watched as poverty reduction legislation which included many of the recommendations from community groups and also constructive amendments from the Progressive Conservatives and New Democratic Party was debated and voted on.  To my amazement, the Poverty Reduction Act was passed unanimously.

You might be sceptical. After all, voting to reduce poverty is like voting for motherhood and apple pie. Who could be opposed to it?

May 15, 2014

Talking Jobs -- Ontario Election 2014

Ontario's into week two of a provincial election campaign. Maybe you have noticed.

The theme for the week seems to be jobs. And the Progressive Conservatives have captured headlines with two seemingly contradictory election promises. One is a pledge to create a million jobs over the next eight years. The second is to lay off 100,000 public sector workers over the next four years.

May 14 falls in the middle of week two of the election campaign. Community groups campaigning to have the minimum wage increased to $14 an hour are holding events on the 14th. The focus there is to make sure that jobs pay enough to lift you out of poverty if you are working full-time, full-year.

And the Bank of Canada just released a report calling into question the quality of jobs that have been created in Canada since the recession. Its seems alot of the new jobs are part-time. But people would like to be working full-time.

So the question for Governments and for political parties seeking to form Government is not just whether they have a plan to help create jobs but whether their plan supports the creation of decent, well-paying jobs.

April 16, 2014

Putting Teeth in Ontario's Second Poverty Reduction Strategy

The Wynne Government has yet to release Ontario's Second Poverty Reduction Strategy. But there are some things we know will be in it and some things we can hope will be.

Dental care for low income households will be in the strategy. The fifth annual progress report on the PRS already announced last December:  "Our government will integrate provincial low-income dental programs for children and youth into a single new Healthy Smiles Ontario Program in 2015." 

This builds upon two things in the first PRS. One was the expansion of the Children in Need of Treatment (CINOT) program to cover youth up to age 18. It used to just go up to age 14. 

The second was introduction of Healthy Smiles Ontario -- preventive dental services for children and youth in low income households who are not covered through social assistance. When launched in 2010, Healthy Smiles Ontario was to reach 130,000 children and youth. By 2013, the Government reported 47,000 had been enrolled.

As of April 2014, the income threshold for eligibility for Healthy Smiles was raised slightly: from $20,000 to $21,513 in Adjusted Family Net Income -- with a higher threshold for families with more than one child. That threshold still seems rather low. But the Government projects it will allow another 70,000 children and youth the be enrolled. Perhaps income eligibility for the Healthy Smiles Program should be aligned with the Ontario Child Benefit, so that any child whose family receives the OCB and does not have private dental coverage could be enrolled in Healthy Smiles.

Will adults be included?
What we do not know is whether the new Poverty Reduction Strategy will include dental services for adults with low incomes. 

Brighter Prospects, the final report of the Commission for the Review of Social Assistance, recommended the Government "make prescription drugs, dental, and other health benefits available to all low income

In 2012, research by the Association of Ontario Health Centres found that there were almost 58,000 emergency room visits for oral health problems. The total estimated cost of those visits in 2012 was at least $30 million. 

The Government should redirect the spending on emergency room treatment of oral health problems into a program of preventive and emergency dental care for low-income adults. 

April 11, 2014

A Chocolate-Making Extravaganza

“All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn't hurt.” ― Charles M. Schulz

In February, a local woman who often makes fancy chocolates for gifts and various events, offered to come in and teach the women & children involved with Circles how to make chocolates. Folks say that diamonds are a girl's best friend, but if the number of attendees that evening is any indication, I would say the same is true about chocolate! This was a very well-attended event! We had such a blast together learning the chocolate-molding ropes. Women walked away from this event with some new ideas on how to make inexpensive and delicious gifts for others, as well as with some scrumptious samples that they themselves had made! 

March 27, 2014

Taxes and the Common Good

Thursday, April 3, 2014, the Interfaith Social Assistance Reform Coaltion (ISARC) has Dr. Alex Himmelfarb speaking about Taxes and the Common Good.

Alex is the Director of the Glendon School of Public and International Affairs. He is also a former Clerk of the Privy Council.

Alex has also co-edited Tax is Not a Four Letter Word.

To register for the forum contact

March 6, 2014

The Failure of Corporate Tax Cuts

I am reading the Great Revenue Robbery -- put out by Canadians for Tax Fairness and published by Between the Lines.

I picked up the book months ago when Dennis Howlett was in town on a book tour. I'm slowly making my way through the book. Alot of interesting stuff.

Jim Stanford's chapter on the failure of corporate tax cuts is a particular eye opener. Since the late 1980s, federal and provincial governments have steadily cut the corporate tax rate.

The economic rationale behind cutting corporate tax rates is that businesses will invest more if they can keep more of their profits.

Turns out it hasn't really worked.
Since the investment spending has declined, but business cash flow has increased.

February 13, 2014

Gifts of Warmth for Circle of Friends

Making Slippers
Packing Blankets
Women in Thessalon, the community where I was raised up along the north shore of Lake Huron,  collaborated to make enough slippers and blankets for all of the women and children involved with the Circle of Friends program. We packaged up all of the homemade gifts, and along with Tim Hortons gift cards donated by a co-worker with MCC, we were able to give all participants Christmas gifts on behalf of Circle of Friends. Watching the ladies and their children open these wrapped gifts was absolutely delightful. These individuals were even more encouraged and grateful when they learned that women up North came together to make sure that they received something warm and beautiful for Christmas!               


January 22, 2014

The importance of speaking up

The community got a win at Waterloo Regional Council's budget meeting last week (January 15, 2014).

Council voted to invest an additional $1 million in the discretionary benefits program. And it is a credit both the Councillors and to the many community people who came out to speak in favour of putting money into that program.

Discretionary benefits are provided to people receiving social assistance to help with things like food emergencies, finding housing, getting dentures or orthotics. It also covers the cost of burial. Those are just some of the things discretionary benefits are used for.

One of the things I have learned over the years is that for our Governments at the local, provincial and federal levels to fulfill their responsibilities well, they need to receive input from community groups and individuals about community needs and the impact public policies are having.

During the Region of Waterloo's budget input sessions dozens of individuals and groups came out and spoke up about the importance of discretionary benefits and urged Councillors to boost funding. They came from the local foodbanks and Out of the Cold programs, churches and Social Planning Councils. They included people who were helped by discretionary benefits. These are folks who work everyday to help people in need get by and hopefully be able to get ahead.

Wayne Porty, a Pastor from Waterloo Mennonite Brethren Church spoke. Wayne administers the Barnabas Fund at Waterloo MB Church. He explains "Over and above their regular tithes, the people of our congregation have given $70,000+ annually, to extend mercy in the form of financial & emotional support to people in crisis in Waterloo Region.  Our congregation is passionate about coming alongside those who struggle - we care about them, because Jesus cares about them even more."

Here is a bit of what Wayne shared with Council.

The majority of Barnabas’ $70,000 budget goes toward direct assistance to people in financial crisis...bridging the financial gap for people who have no way to resolve their situation, on a case by case basis.  We take the time to hear people in their time of need, to assist them in making a plan, and to journey alongside them as they work toward financial stability.  It's not a loan or a thoughtless handout.  95% of people who we assist are not part of our congregation, and there is no expectation that they will become so. It is an extension of love & mercy.

So this is the context I'm working from - the majority of the people I come into contact with have already made attempts to access support from the Region, and they have either been denied or it is simply not enough.  Although we have been able to fill in some of the gaps for the 300+ families we are actively connected with, as the gaps have grown wider – which we’ve especially seen in the past year - we are less able to fill them.  We are stretched to our max, and we simply cannot keep up.  I'm here today to offer a very frank challenge to you for 2014 - to not only match the generous contribution that you made in 2013, but to consider doing even more.
 I have personally seen the impact of the province's cuts to discretionary funding.  I have seen how it has hamstrung the ability of Ontario Works and Disability staff to assist in logical ways to legitimate needs.  Their hands are tied.  I can see their frustration and disillusionment as they cannot do what they know needs to be done in order to get their clients on the right track.  This is a mirror-image of the helplessness & hopelessness the clients themselves experience.  

Kudos to both Regional Council and staff and to the people of Waterloo Region who spoke up for the needs of people struggling to get by in our community.

Now we need the Provincial and Federal Governments to do their part. It has been cutbacks in benefits and services at those levels of Government that have led to the rise of foodbanks and Out of the Cold programs.