Over the past few months, 123 parishes in our diocese have passed this year’s social justice vestry motion, calling on the provincial government to double social assistance rates. This was an incredible show of support from parishes large and small, rural, urban and suburban. Interestingly, while parishes are always given the option of amending the motion as proposed, no parish reported watering down the motion. Some even voted to strengthen it!
Unfortunately, in the latest Ontario budget, there was no increase to social assistance rates beyond providing for the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) to be indexed to inflation starting in July 2023, as had been announced in last year’s election campaign. The budget did include a temporary doubling of the Guaranteed Annual Income System benefit for seniors during 2023, with a promise that it would be indexed to inflation starting in 2024.
People on Ontario Works (OW), however, continue to live in ever-deepening poverty, with single individuals receiving a maximum benefit of $733 per month. Those on OW who are homeless or living in shelters receive even less: a single individual receives only $343 for “basic needs.” OW rates have stayed at the same level since September 2018, and there is as yet no government discussion about raising those income supports. Yet in that time, inflation has risen by 9.9 per cent, with some costs, such as food and energy, increasing at an even higher rate. While almost all of us have felt the pinch, those who were already in deep poverty are hardest hit.
The impact on housing and food insecurity is staggering. Neil Heatherington, CEO of Daily Bread Food Bank, is one of many in the charitable sector who is sounding the alarm. Before the pandemic, 60,000 people used Daily Bread food banks every month. In March 2023, that number was 270,000 – more than four times the pre-pandemic number, enough to fill the Rogers Centre nearly seven times. With increased demand and rising inflation, Daily Bread now spends more per month on food than it used to spend in an entire year pre-pandemic.
Similarly, our church-run food banks and community meal programs are hard-pressed to meet the needs of those who show up. Clergy are reporting increasing requests from people in the community for financial help with housing and food costs that are simply beyond their reach. Churches’ front-line witness to deepening poverty is perhaps the biggest factor behind the overwhelming support for this year’s vestry motion. We know that without increased income supports, both homelessness and hunger will continue to increase in our communities.
Bishop Andrew has communicated our disappointment with the government’s failure to address the deepening poverty of social assistance recipients in his response to the provincial budget. You can find this letter on the Social Justice & Advocacy page of the diocesan website (www.toronto.anglican.ca/sjac).
Individuals and parishes can follow up their support for increases to social assistance by writing a letter to their MPP, using our template at www.toronto.anglican.ca/vestry-motion. You could also ask for a meeting – perhaps a small group of two or three from your parish can go together! The Social Justice & Advocacy section of the website has resources to guide you through this process.
The federal government also has a role to play in reducing poverty. This year’s federal budget included a “grocery rebate” of up to $234 for single working-age Canadians without children, $225 for seniors and up to $467 for eligible couples with two children, to help defray the impact of inflation on food costs. This benefit, which will be delivered via the GST rebate, is expected to reach 11 million Canadians. Yet it is only a drop in the bucket for those trying to make ends meet.
Canadians with disabilities, about 25 per cent of whom live in poverty, are also pressing the federal government to deliver on its proposed Canada Disability Benefit. A bill to establish such a benefit has passed in the House of Commons and is now before the Senate for consideration. Advocates are urging the federal government to ensure that this benefit is adequate to lift people with disabilities out of poverty and to roll it out within this calendar year.
On June 1, during National AccessAbility Week, Holy Trinity, Guildwood will be hosting an evening event to raise awareness of the Canada Disability Benefit, in collaboration with the advocacy group Disability Without Poverty. Postcards will be available for attendees to sign and send to their MPs, urging them to implement the benefit. This is a great opportunity to learn more about the issue and engage in advocacy.
There are many opportunities for advocacy on income supports at both the federal and provincial levels. As Proverbs 31:9 reminds us, “Speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.” As rising costs push low-income neighbours further to the margins, our voice is needed more than ever.