Anyone who’s read a newspaper or magazine in the last few months can verify: recession chic is the new black. The only thing more irritating than regularly seeing a decline in the figures on your RRSP statement, though, is the spate of sanctimonious and insulting articles on frugal living being churned out in economy-sized quantities in almost every Canadian publication. Every journalist around seems eager to strike the pose of the poverty-stricken: Eye’s Kate Carraway bravely survived on $60 for a whole week. Macleans’ Chris Johns and his girlfriend cut their food budget from $300 a week (!) to a meagre $50 (with recipes courtesy of “some of the country’s best chefs” that spawned a collection of $5 recipes designed to feed families of four, flying directly in the face of Agriculture and Agrifood Canada’s “nutritious food basket” which costs at least $137 a week for a family of four).
Yep, the economy sucks, and yep, many regular people in Canada and all over the world need to find ways to get by on much less. But that group certainly doesn’t include employed journalists with ample disposable income. Ontario has seen a sharp increase in both unemployment numbers and welfare applications since the last few months of 2008. Most people in our province who are truly in need don’t have the luxury of connected social circles from whence to sponge freebies until their exile to No Frills is finally up—a single mother with one child living on welfare in Ontario receives about $14,451 annually, which is almost $10,000 below the Low Income Cut-Off line (LICO) for Toronto. A single person fares the worst of all, with benefits of only $571 a month—much less than $10,000 a year. While a magazine or newspaper article written from a detached and superior position is annoying, policies made from said position are deplorable, not to mention dangerous to those upon whom the policies are imposed. Policies affecting actual poor people in Ontario are in dire need of reform.
Then-Premier Mike Harris’s 21.6% welfare cuts in 1995 are still affecting people in Ontario today—rates have never been significantly re-worked to reflect today’s cost of living; in fact, the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) estimates that current rates would need to be raised 40% just to return them to what they were pre-1995. Welfare rates have never provided a comfortable lifestyle (and to be fair, they have never been intended to), but a 21.6% cut from an already crappy rate left recipients (especially those with families, as the majority of claimants have) reeling. After all, these were budgets that already had almost nothing to trim already, trimmed a quarter more.
The big question post-cuts was what quality of life a person collecting welfare could expect to have. One policy-maker’s reply came in the form of the infamous “shopping list” created by then-social services minister David Tsubouchi. Tsubouchi calculated that a single adult could live on a food budget of $90.81 a month and created a highly flawed shopping list to prove it. This list allowed for things like pasta (but not sauce) and recommended “haggling” for lower prices on items like dented cans of tuna. (This diet also turned out to deliver less nutritional value than the diet fed in Ontario’s prisons.)
Despite the widely known fact that healthy diets lead to fewer long- and short-term health problems, income supplements of as much as $250 per family member per month for food are currently only available to recipients of welfare or disability benefits who can have a doctor, nurse, or midwife sign off on verification of some existing health concern that requires a special diet. Starting in 2005, OCAP began holding “Hunger Clinics” where sympathetic health practitioners help welfare and disability recipients sign up. This controversial strategy has been highly criticized by many over the years, most recently in the Toronto Sun, where articles allege to “blow the whistle” on “abuse” of the program, including the requisite right-wing eye-witness accounts of hard-working taxpayers attesting to that ubiquitous fabulously wealthy, SUV-driving welfare mom.
Where Hunger Clinics and Special Diet Supplements do fall short, of course, is that they do not amount to actual policy change. Making use of funds that are supposed to be available only to some who can prove themselves in need doesn’t truly address that benefits don’t provide any welfare or disability recipient with enough money to live on somewhat healthfully, and they don’t hold the government accountable for providing this basic right upfront to all recipients across the board. Until real policy change occurs, people who receive the Special Diet Supplement will always be at risk of being “exposed” for “exploiting” what many critics would call a loophole in the system—which means that these benefits will be in perpetual danger of revocation, either for individuals, families, or system-wide.
One policy maker with an interest in system reform is Toronto Medical Officer of Health David McKeown, who is currently pushing for a $100 a month “Healthy Food Supplement” to be made available to all adults receiving welfare or disability. In October 2008, McKeown stated that “these inequalities [higher rates of illness and disease and shorter life expectancy] are unacceptable in a society that values equal access to good health.” He was commenting at the time on his Unequal City Report, which tracked income and health inequalities in Toronto. The report confirmed once again the link between income and health in Toronto, stating among many other conclusions that “…if everyone was as healthy as those with the highest incomes and the best health,” that there would be 18% fewer premature deaths and approximately 20% fewer low-birthweight babies. The Ontario government, however, has yet to agree to McKeown’s proposed rate hike and that each month the rates remain unchanged puts more and more individuals and families at risk of the health problems associated with maluntrition. It appears that Toronto is still far from achieving Public Health’s vision of a “healthy city where all people enjoy the highest level of health and well being.”
Photos by Michael Chrisman from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.