The Impact of an Underfunded Poverty Reduction Strategy
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The Impact of an Underfunded Poverty Reduction Strategy

Six weeks ago, council unanimously passes the Poverty Reduction Strategy, but it lacks $20 million in funding in the preliminary 2016 budget. Here's why that matters.

In 1995, Pat Capponi was living on welfare when premier Mike Harris announced a nearly 22 per cent cut to social assistance. She was down to a few cigarettes and cans of food, and she had just spent her last dollars on rent. In 30 days, she would be on the street—refusing, stubbornly, to participate in the new welfare system anymore. “I’m not gonna give the son of a bitch the satisfaction,” she thought. Instead, she wrote him a letter:

“Dear Mike Harris. Since your election, I can’t believe anymore. There was a time when faces like yours, contemptuous an‎d sure, took away everything that made life livable. I will not go on welfare, hold out my hand and say, please, sir. There is a dignity in my hunger, even in my fear. I believe it is better to be who I am, even now, than to be you.”

Capponi’s letter was the first of a series of addresses to Harris that were published in Now Magazine, and eventually became the crux of her book Dispatches from the Poverty Line. “It saved me from homelessness,” she says referring to the original letter.

Capponi knows the value of anti-poverty advocacy, effective social program and services, and what underfunding can do to that safety net. But as the City’s budget goals come up against its poverty reduction strategy, the latter may fall short.

Since 1995, Capponi has made her career fighting to give people in poverty—or those who have escaped it—more power over policies that affect their condition. Last spring, when City staff were faced with building a poverty reduction strategy, Capponi jumped at the chance to participate.

The year-long process involved 101 public meetings, 635 completed questionnaires, and 10 straight days of deliberation. The end result was TO Prosperity. The plan aimed to eliminate poverty by 2035, starting in 2016 by addressing immediate needs like housing, job and food security.

On Nov. 4, council members showed unanimous support for the strategy, and in his remarks on the motion, Mayor John Tory spoke to its significance.

I think this is one of the most important decisions, one of the most important commitments that we’re going to make as a council during this entire term without even knowing what else is going to come up over the next three years.

But upon last week’s preliminary budget release, enthusiasm for fully funding the Poverty Reduction Strategy did not match the early rhetoric.

Missing from the budget was $20 million in services and programs related to the Poverty Reduction Strategy that council or Toronto Community Housing Corp. (TCHC) —with direction from people affected by poverty—had already endorsed. Those items included:

  • Expanding the cost-shared Homemakers and Nurses Services Program. This would cost $750,000 and would give an additional 400 vulnerable residents a 75 per cent break on the homecare service.
  • Extending cold weather drop-in services. For $416,000, the City could open shelters for 24-hours during January and February of 2016 and 2017.
  • Developing a Toronto Youth Employment Program. The program would cost $633,000 to help at-risk youth develop skills to secure jobs through education initiatives, co-ops, and mentorships.
  • Enhancing the Toronto Urban Health Fund. The five-year program launched last year to improve HIV prevention, harm reduction, and youth resiliency. This year’s would-be budget of $150,000 would fund 21 projects and help train 200 peer leaders to reach 1,500 vulnerable children and youth.
  • Improving Student Nutrition Toronto. It would cost $1.5 million to increase the number of breakfasts participating schools offer, and to extend the program to 49 more schools in high-need neighbourhoods to reach 15,800 more students.
  • Expanding library services. The City would invest 958,000 to increase access to information, technology, digital literacy and other programs through public libraries.
  • Implementing Mayor John Tory’s TCHC task force. The City would need $13.7 million to fulfil 2016 commitments to improve safety and overall living standards in TCHC.

Despite council’s early support for these and other initiatives, Capponi, who sits on the advisory committee with fellow citizens, says she’s not surprised the City is hesitant to pony up for them. “Why would they fund new stuff when the old stuff simply hasn’t worked?” she says, pointing to past poverty reduction ambitions, which did little to stop Toronto from becoming the child poverty and income inequality capital of Canada. “I was quite disturbed that one of the asks [in the strategy] was to preserve programs. That’s a mistake because programs aren’t working for us.”

“Shelters and drop-ins are not the solution,” she continues. “We need to focus our efforts in targeted areas to look at education, to look at literacy training, safe housing, but we haven’t done that yet.”

One such initiative, Housing First, has successfully helped people out of poverty across North America by giving them safe, stable shelter regardless of drug-use, mental health, or employment status. The theory is that once people have a stable home, they can better cope with other problems linked to poverty.

Toronto has started a Housing First pilot program, but so far, the $800,000 needed to fund it in 2016 isn’t in the preliminary budget.

“We need to have our folks at the decision-making tables, not just in an advisory capacity,” says Capponi. Despite the obstacles, she holds out hope that poverty reduction will be better funded in the final budget when it’s announced in February.