With inflation at the highest rates seen in decades, the cost of living is on everyone’s mind these days. There is probably no one in Ontario who hasn’t felt some level of “sticker shock” when paying for everything from gas to groceries, rent and heat. But what if your income was already insufficient to meet your basic needs before inflation hit?
Since 1995, when the Harris government cut social assistance rates by 21.6 per cent for recipients considered employable (a program now called Ontario Works or OW), to live on social assistance in this province has been to live in increasingly deep poverty. The modest rate increases applied to both Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support Program from 2003 to 2018 barely kept pace with inflation over that period, and after a 1.5 per cent increase in fall 2018, rates for both OW and ODSP were frozen for the next four years. Thus, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, single people receiving ODSP were 40 per cent below the poverty line, while those receiving OW were more than 60 per cent below the poverty line. Both rates fall well within what is considered “deep poverty,” or an income 75 per cent of (or 25 per cent below) the official poverty line.
As inflation has climbed, the poverty gap has only widened. In September 2022, the Ford government followed through with its campaign promise to raise ODSP rates by 5 per cent. While this is a welcome step after a four-year rate freeze, it is still far from adequate. The increase will give single ODSP recipients just over $58 more per month, nowhere near enough to lift them out of deep poverty. Meanwhile, those on Ontario Works receive no increase at all. There is nowhere in Ontario where the $733 per month received by a single person on OW is adequate to meet their needs for food, shelter and clothing.
It’s hardly surprising that homelessness is increasing everywhere from Peel to Peterborough and Collingwood to Coburg, while food banks and other food security programs are reporting a huge spike in the numbers of people accessing their services for the first time. While people receiving Ontario Works are considered employable, the abysmally low rates of assistance drive them deeper into destitution, making it more and more difficult for them to lift themselves out of poverty.
Some ODSP recipients are actively seeking medical assistance in dying (MAiD), not because they are dying of their disabilities, nor because they don’t wish to live, but because their income is too meagre to allow them to live with their disabilities in dignity. For such people, the recently expanded access to MAiD may at least allow them to die with dignity. As the Rev. Canon Douglas Graydon has noted, this is less of an individual choice than an indictment against a society that has “determined that they’re not worthy of sufficient resources to ensure a quality of life.”
A growing number of advocates across the province have begun calling for a substantial increase to both OW and ODSP to meet the cost of basic needs. This past summer, the Income Security Advocacy Centre (a branch of Legal Aid Ontario) released an open letter calling on the provincial government to double social assistance rates and index them to inflation. This letter has been endorsed by more than 230 community organizations and social service providers, including food banks and legal clinics across the province; faith communities such as the Salvation Army and Mennonite Central Committee – Ontario; coalitions such as the Interfaith Social Assistance Reform Coalition (ISARC), of which this diocese is a member; and several of our FaithWorks ministry partners, including the Orillia Christian Centre – Lighthouse and the Dam. ISARC is planning to invite its faith communities to participate in a solidarity fast and advocacy action leading up to its fall forum in November. (Visit www.isarc.ca to learn more.)
Anglicans in our diocese will also be asked to support a social justice vestry motion in 2023 calling for a substantial increase to social assistance rates. The motion and supporting materials are in preparation and should be available on the diocesan website by early December.
Ensuring that the most vulnerable members of our communities are able to meet their most basic needs is surely one of our most fundamental obligations as a society. Disabled people should not be driven to seek “death with dignity” because we fail to provide them with enough to live life with dignity. Those who are down on their luck should be supported to rise out of poverty rather than pushed deeper into destitution.
To fail to respond to the needs of the poor in our midst is to be like the rich man in Luke 16 who enjoyed the good things of life while ignoring Lazarus at his gate. We are called instead to recognize in our neighbour the face of Christ, and to work together to ensure all have enough.