Posts Tagged ‘poverty’

When it Comes to Poverty Reduction, Budget 2016 Earns Failing Grade

Saturday, April 30th, 2016

Another provincial budget, another Liberal betrayal of Ontarians living in poverty. Despite past promises, the provincial government’s Budget 2016 does not prioritize poverty reduction. While the budget does include some concrete measures designed to make life more affordable for low and moderate-income households, as Ontario Federation of Labour President Chris Buckley has remarked, “modest program improvements in certain sectors are being paid for by across-the-board cuts to others.” Make no mistake about it: despite overtures to “social investment”, this is an austerity budget and makes a mockery of the provincial Liberal’s poverty reduction commitments.

Back in 2007, the Liberals announced a much heralded poverty reduction strategy with the modest goal of reducing child poverty by 25 percent over five years. However, according to economists with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Ontario ended its five-year strategy with the same level of child poverty as when it began in 2008.  While long overdue increases in the Ontario Child Benefit and the minimum wage, the roll out of full-day kindergarten, and the introduction of Healthy Smiles Ontario (a program providing dental care for kids in low-income households), have all been important developments, since the austerity budget of 2012, the Liberals have beat a hasty retreat in their War on Poverty.

Our self-styled “social justice premier”, Kathleen Wynne, is a former schoolteacher and has written her fair share of report cards. Well it’s time to issue the Wynne government a poverty report card and in subjects ranging from social assistance to food security, the provincial Liberals are earning very bad grades.

F in Social Assistance

Close to 900,000 Ontarians rely on social assistance to help meet their basic needs. Since the Harris Conservative’s cuts in 1995, welfare incomes have been grossly inadequate, falling far below the poverty line.

For folks on social assistance, Budget 2016 does bring some good news. The Wynne government has committed to ending the dollar-for-dollar claw back of child support from social assistance, although the amount of child support that single parents will be able to keep has not yet been determined. Furthermore, as the Income Security Advocacy Centre has pointed out, there is no new money for legal aid services that give single parents the assistance they need to obtain child care support orders.

In terms of social assistance rates, the budget includes a 1.5 percent increase in rates for families on OW and ODSP recipients and a 3.7 percent increase to the rates for single individuals without children on OW (which amounts to an extra $25 a month). However, the increases will not kick in until September and October. Furthermore, with inflation at around 2 percent, a 1.5 percent increase actually amounts to a cut in the real income of families on OW and folks on ODSP.

F in Child Care

According to the Ontario Coalition for Better Child Care, Ontario tops the list of the highest and least affordable child care fees in Canada, with long wait lists for subsidy in many communities.

Despite this, Budget 2016 offers no new money for child care and creates no new child care spaces. As Carolyn Ferns, Public Policy Coordinator of the Ontario Coalition for Better Child Care, has said “The Ontario government is squandering its chance to make real progress on early learning and child care.”

The budget ignores the affordability crisis facing Ontario’s parents, especially low and moderate-income families. Subsidized child care can be a route out of poverty, especially for single mothers on social assistance. Sadly, the Wynne Liberals are doing nothing to improve access to quality, affordable child care.

D in Housing

With long waiting lists and a huge backlog in repairs, social housing in Ontario is in crisis. Yet the budget doesn’t serve up any major new cash for social housing needs and instead simply repeats previous commitments.

There is an injection of $178 million over three years into the Liberal government’s existing affordable housing strategy. This will go into assistance to those fleeing domestic violence (a $2.4-million pilot) and homelessness outreach ($45 million). Details are thin on where the remaining $100 million will be spent, although the budget says it will support 1,500 new supportive housing units providing assistance to those with disabilities and other needs. Again, this is not new money but simply the repackaging of previous commitments.

Furthermore, as the Income Security Advocacy Centre points out, there is no increase in direct funding to low-income households, especially folks on social assistance, to pay for the housing-related expenses—like first and last month’s rent, utilities arrears, and furniture replacement. These expenses used to be covered by the Community Start-Up and Maintenance Benefit, which the Wynne government axed in 2013.

F in Food Security

Rising food and housing costs are leaving many cash poor folks with the dire choice either paying the rent or putting food on the table. According to the Daily Bread Food Bank, food costs are up 4% and vegetable prices have increased upwards of 18%. Food bank use has been on the rise throughout the province. The Daily Bread estimates that after paying for rent and utilities, the average food bank user has an income of only $6.67 a day to try to live on. With no commitment to food security in Budget 2016, people living on low-incomes will continue to have to rely on food banks and experience the health problems associated with poor diets.

B in Post-Secondary Education

On the poverty file, post-secondary education is the one bright spot in Budget 2016. Changes to the post-secondary grants and loans system and education-related tax credits will mean that students from families with incomes under $50,000 will receive more in non-repayable grants than they pay in tuition for most post-secondary programs.

These changes apply to anyone who is eligible for OSAP, including those receiving social assistance. While the devil is in the details—students and/or parents will stay have to pony up $3000 to access these grants—this appears to be one subject in which the Wynne Liberals are worthy of a decent grade.

However, the government is providing no new funding for post-secondary education overall and this means little will change for the army of precarious part-time instructors who now do the bulk of undergraduate teaching in Ontario and who often earn near poverty-level incomes.

New Initiatives

The provincial government has announced it will be setting up a guaranteed basic income pilot project but with few details, we should reserve judgment on this subject.

Overall grade: F

When it comes to poverty, the provincial Liberal’s 2016 budget deserves a failing grade. In Ontario, there has been a 38% increase in poverty over the past 20 years. Nearly one in five of the province’s children live in poverty and close to 7 workers are now earning within $4 of the minimum wage. Ontario families pay up to $19,000 a year for child care, the highest costs in Canada. And as the Income Security Advocacy Centre has said, “below-poverty incomes for people on social assistance continue to leave them in dire circumstances.” Overall, Ontario funds all of its social programs at the lowest rate in Canada.

The need to build a strong anti-poverty movement in Ontario has never been more pressing. Not simply an example of the moral callousness of the Wynne government, Budget 2016 is a reflection of the current weakness of our movement. If the provincial Liberals are to earn better grades, we will need to encourage them—with protests, rallies, organizing, activism, and effective advocacy—to go back to school.

Simon Black is Assistant Professor at the Centre for Labour Studies, Brock University, and a member of Peel Poverty Action Group

Ontario NDP losing its voice on minimum wage

Tuesday, March 4th, 2014

“When it came to issues affecting the most marginalized in our society, including the working poor, the NDP was once a prophetic voice in Ontario politics. Sadly, that voice now speaks in whispers.”

Read my latest op-ed for The Toronto Star here

How Martin Luther King’s legacy speaks to our Canadian reality

Thursday, April 4th, 2013

My op-ed for The Toronto Star on the 45th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was shot dead while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. Most Canadians, even those with little knowledge of American history, will know King as a leader of the African-American civil rights movement, a Christian minister and a proponent of non-violent civil disobedience. And many will be acquainted with the public address with which King is most closely associated, the I Have a Dream speech delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. in August 1963.

The version of King commemorated on the third Monday of January each year in the U.S. — the version Canadians will be familiar with — is that of a prophetic, revolutionary voice tamed and made safe for an America — and a world — still characterized by racial, economic and social injustice. As African-American philosopher Cornel West has said, “Martin has been deodorized, sanitized, sterilized by the right wing and neo-liberals to such a degree that his militancy is downplayed.”

On April 4, 1967, a year to the day before his death, King departed from his message of civil rights to deliver a speech against America’s war in Vietnam. Standing at the pulpit of Harlem’s historic Riverside Church, King denounced the war, connecting his government’s military adventures abroad to the failure of the war on poverty at home. The programs designed to house the homeless, feed the hungry and provide jobs for the unemployed — “the real promise of hope for the poor” — were starved for cash as the war effort was ramped up.

As King said that day, “I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.”

He argued that America must “undergo a radical revolution of values” for “when machines and computers, profit and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

King’s criticism of U.S. imperialism, his commitment to ending poverty, and his belief that the promise of civil rights could not be fulfilled without economic and social rights did not endear him to a broad swath of the American public. In the months before his death, his disapproval rating stood at 74 per cent; among black Americans it was 55 per cent. In the wake of his Beyond Vietnam speech, some mainstream civil rights leaders distanced themselves from King, fearing he had aligned himself too closely with the radical left of the Black Power and peace movements. The Washington Post declared: “King has done a grave injury to those who are his natural allies . . . and . . . an ever graver injury to himself.” In denouncing the war, he had denounced a president — Lyndon Johnson — who had taken political risks in supporting civil rights legislation. Financial contributions to King’s civil rights organization dried up. “I’d rather follow my conscience, than follow the crowd,” King replied.

This is the King we seldom hear from today, the King who called for a “radical revolution of values.” His message is a moral beacon, a light whose source may have been the black church, a prophetic Christianity forged amid the struggle against American apartheid more than 40 years ago, but it illuminates the dark corners of Canadian democracy today.

In Canada, we have spent $11.3 billion on the mission in Afghanistan, yet in the latest federal budget there was little for the 3.2 million of our fellow citizens who live in poverty.

We can afford to spend upward of $25 billion on new fighter jets to patrol the skies, but do not have the money to address the crisis of affordable housing that leaves so many Canadians homeless or precariously housed.

We live with racial inequalities — for example, racialized Canadians are three times more likely to live in poverty than other Canadians and in Toronto black males are three times more likely to be carded by police — yet do little to address institutionalized racism in our labour markets and criminal justice systems.

One in five aboriginals lives in poverty and many live without access to basic necessities such as electricity and clean water. Schools on reserves face funding gaps between $2,000 and $3,000 per student each year compared with provincial schools. Yet we have a prime minister who is more eager to greet two visiting pandas from China than First Nations youth who have trekked some 1,600 kilometers to Parliament Hill.

Too many of our political leaders have become well adjusted to injustice. Too many are willing to sacrifice equality and dignity for all on the altar of free markets and the national security establishment.

In that same speech at the Riverside Church, King said, “These are revolutionary times . . . people all over the globe are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression, and out of the wombs of a frail world, new systems of justice and equality are being born.”

From the Arab Spring to the global movement to end violence against women and girls, from anti-austerity protests in Europe to Occupy Wall Street, from rebellions of urban youth in France and the U.K. to indigenous struggles in the Americas, once again people are on the move the world over. We are waiting for new systems of justice and equality to be born.

At home, student protests in Quebec, union demonstrations for labour rights and, perhaps most important, the Idle No More movement, have questioned a social and economic order that benefits the few at the expense of the many.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of a world free from poverty, racism and militarism is a universal one. His is a legacy worth wrestling with as we forge the path to a more just society.


Published in The Toronto Star, April 4th 2013, p. A25.

Poverty, Protest and Power from Below

Friday, December 28th, 2012

A friend recently sent me a cartoon depicting two workers in conversation: One says to the other, “Remember when nurses, teachers, municipal workers and poor people crashed the economy and took billions in bonuses and bailouts?” “No”, his buddy responds; “Me neither” nods the first.

If we’ve learnt anything from the economic crisis and Great Recession it’s that big business and their friends in government are brilliantly adept at blaming the victim. And through their control of the corporate media and power to shape and influence public debate, elites have been successful at convincing many of our fellow citizens that public sector workers, unions, and the poor are indeed to blame for the economic mess created by Wall Street and Bay Street, the big banks and high flying financiers.

With cuts to social programs and the assault on unions, ordinary people are being made to pay for a crisis that is not of their making. In the meantime, cor­porations continue to benefit from large tax cuts and sit on piles of cash. The rich escape tax in­creases and park their wealth in offshore accounts while public libraries close, teachers’ wages are frozen, and the poor struggle to put food on the table, avoid eviction, and cope with the daily grind of life on a low income.

Employers have used the crisis to restructure workplaces, increasing in­security for the majority of working people. Keeping workers in fear of being replaced is one method by which bosses maintain a quiescent and com­pliant workforce. Creating precarious jobs—such as temp work that is difficult to unionize under our ar­chaic labour laws—is another. The post-recession jobs recovery has seen pre-recession full-time work replaced with part-time, temporary, and other precarious forms of employment. Quiet workers make for big profits and happy employers.

Governments have used the crisis and resulting budget deficits as an excuse to roll back the hard fought gains of the labour movement. Both Harper and McGuinty have passed or threatened to pass back-to-work legislation to stop workers from exercising their rights to bargain collectively or to go on strike to defend their wages and working conditions. Weakened unions hamper the labour movement’s traditional role as a counterweight to the influence of big business on government.

Workers on welfare or disability have also been under attack. The Ontario government’s poverty re­duction plan has been put on hold. While McGuinty has raised welfare rates, these increases have not even kept up with inflation. If welfare was to be returned to pre-Harris Conservatives levels, the govern­ment would have to raise rates by close to 60 per cent. In addition, anti-poverty measures such as the Ontario Child Benefit have been cut.

So the next few years, and likely the next decade, look tough for all working class Ontarians, but especially for those already living near or below the poverty line; those who were vulnerable prior to the Great Recession are made even more vulnerable since. Low-income Ontarians are confronting fewer child-care subsidies, extended waiting lists for social housing, and persistent unemployment and underemployment. More people than ever are caught in the dire dilemma of whether to feed the kids or pay the rent. Changes to employ­ment standards and labour law, which could create the conditions to lift people out of poverty, are derided as “unfriendly to business”.

How then do we make gains in a climate of auster­ity? Confronted with the resources of the rich and pow­erful, how do we mobilize power from below to defend our past victories and fight for social justice?

We should look to history for guidance. In the 1930s and 40s, Canadian workers went on strike for union recognition and better wages and working conditions. In 1943 alone, one in three workers engaged in strike action. Unemployed workers set out to march on Ottawa to demand they be treated with dignity and respect. Those struggles led to the legiti­mization of unions, the construction of the welfare state, and a greater share of society’s wealth going to ordinary folks.

In the 1960s, unions and anti-poverty organizations pushed for the expansion of social programs and lessened in­equality. They marched, they protested, they made noise.

In the mid-1980s, anti-poverty, labour and women’s groups mobilized to influence the direction of the provincial Liberal-NDP coalition government. Poor people’s marches snaked through three of Ontario’s largest cities. The end result was a 25 per cent increase in welfare rates and the humanization of many aspects of a stigmatizing and punitive system.

History shows us that our silence will be met with government inaction. As American academics Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward put it in their classic book Regulating the Poor, “A placid poor get nothing, but a turbulent poor sometimes get something.”

We may not control great riches or other sources of power like the police and the military, but we do have the power to refuse to go along with agendas of the elites. Society’s ability to function requires that stu­dents go to classes, tenants pay their rent, workers do their jobs, and the poor remain quiet and polite. If we decide not to cooperate, not to go to classes, to with­hold our rent, to occupy welfare offices, or withhold our labour, we can exercise power from below. But we can’t do these things without organization. That’s why it’s more important than ever to join organizations like Peel Poverty Action Group and collectively defend our past victories and work toward building a better, more just world.


Published as “How the Powerless Can Win” in the Fall 2012 edition of the Tough Times community newspaper

The way forward for Ontario’s anti-poverty movement

Tuesday, October 30th, 2012

A version of this article was published in The Toronto Star as “Ontario Anti-Poverty Movement Needs a Dose of Street Heat”.

Last week, Frances Lankin and Munir Sheikh, heads of the Commission for the Review of Social Assistance in Ontario, released their final report, Brighter Prospects: Transforming Social Assistance in Ontario. It contains some good ideas but anti-poverty activists will have to ask themselves whether more aggressive action is necessary.

The commission called on the government to implement some of its 108 recommendations immediately, including a $100-a-month rate increase for single adults on Ontario Works (they currently receive $599 a month, 66 per cent below the poverty line); changing the rules to allow all recipients to earn $200 a month without having their benefits reduced, and raising OW asset limits to Ontario Disability Support Program levels of $6,000 for a single person and $7,500 for a couple. Adopting these recommendations would make small, but concrete material differences in the lives of social assistance recipients.

We’ve been here before. The 1988 review of social assistance, entitled Transitions, was a 500-page tome documenting all that was wrong with the system and put forward progressive measures for change. While some of these measures were adopted under the Peterson and Rae governments, in 1995 the Harris Conservatives came to power, cut welfare rates by 21.6 per cent and turned the province’s social assistance system into one of the cruellest and most punitive in the country.

Despite a few tweaks since forming government in 2003, the provincial Liberals have left this system largely intact. With a dismal record on poverty reduction and an apparent willingness to balance the books on the backs of everyday people, it is doubtful whether a new Liberal leader would move us in the right direction.

In fact, just months prior to the release of the commission’s report, the McGuinty Liberals announced plans to eliminate a benefit program that gave up to $1,500 every two years to families on social assistance that were facing eviction, in danger of having their utilities cut off, fleeing domestic violence, moving from shelters or unsafe housing, or unable to replace bedbug-infested furniture or broken appliances. This followed their cut to the Special Diet program which many social assistance recipients relied on to meet their dietary needs.

The government’s formal response to Lankin and Sheikh’s report has been to announce that it will work with its “partners, both inside and outside of government, to discuss the implications of transformation, and begin creating a road map for success.” More discussions, more timetables, more debate, consultation and “stakeholder dialogue.” The government has said that welfare rates and benefit structures will remain unchanged in the interim. In the meantime, Ontario’s poor continue to face the dire dilemma of whether to feed the kids or pay the rent.

Ontario’s anti-poverty movement — the thousands of individuals and hundreds of organizations committed to ending poverty in this province — is now at a crossroads. A cynic might argue that the greatest achievement of the social assistance review process, and indeed the broader poverty reduction strategy, has been to neutralize the anti-poverty movement, channelling its resources and energies away from organizing and activism and into advocacy, away from challenging government to having dialogue with it.

History tells us that successful movements for social change play both “insider” and “outsider” politics. Social movements need advocates on the inside to push their agenda, put forward progressive policies and develop relationships with decision makers. But these insiders are powerless without the threat of disruption and mobilization on the outside, what American civil rights campaigner Jesse Jackson famously called “street heat.” Organizing tenants, occupying welfare offices, knocking on MPPs’ doors, showing up unannounced at political party fundraisers, marches and demonstrations, mass political education, consciousness-raising, appealing to the moral sensibilities of the general public — these are the sometimes messy but always powerful stuff of social movement politics.

Ontario’s anti-poverty movement has a surplus of insiders, but has thus far failed to bring the street heat. Faced with an intransigent government, the question now is whether the scarce resources of the movement can be turned from consultation and dialogue — the polite politics of the inside — to organizing, activism and agitation, the street-fighting politics of the outside.

Does this shift make sense with a prorogued legislature and lame duck premier? Poor people and their allies are tired of timelines, consultations and “stakeholder” meetings. The movement’s focus on insider politics has appeared to play into the government’s agenda of delay, defer and deflect.

At a meeting of the Region of Peel’s roundtable on social assistance, a woman with lived experience of poverty turned to the group and said, “We’re tired of waiting. We want justice and we want it now.” If the anti-poverty movement can’t find justice via commissions and consultations, it’s time we look for it in the streets, constituency and welfare offices across this province.

Simon Black is a researcher in urban social policy at the City Institute at York University and a member of Peel Poverty Action Group.

Published in The Toronto Star, Oct 30 2012

Why people on welfare are poor (and why the rich like it that way)

Friday, August 3rd, 2012

Who benefits from a miserly welfare system in which social assistance rates are set below the poverty line? Ontario’s Social Assistance Review Commission has heard from hundreds of social assistance recipients and anti-poverty activists and they have all said the same thing: welfare is broken and needs to be fixed. Rates are too low, rules are too punitive, and the system does more to punish than to help the poor. Yet for government and their rich friends, the welfare system is doing exactly what it was designed to do.

Poor relief, as welfare was originally called, was never designed to be a benevolent handout to the poor. From its roots in England’s Poor Laws through to the Harris Conservative’s social assistance reforms of the mid-90s, welfare has operated on the principle of “less eligibility.” The historic 1834 report on Britain’s Poor Laws, issued at the behest of King William IV, stated: “The first and most essential of all conditions, a principle which we find universally ad mitted, even by those whose practice is at variance with it, is, that his (the relief recipient’s) situation on the whole shall not be made really or apparently so eligible (i.e., desirable) as the situation of the independent labourer of the lowest class.”

Over 150 years later, the logic remains: The recipient of social assistance should never be better off than the lowest paid wage worker in the labour market. This is exactly what Mike Harris had in mind when his government introduced workfare and cut welfare rates by 21.6 per cent, and why the McGuinty government has done so little to reverse these changes. Since the early 1990s, Ontario’s labour market has been characterized by the growth and persistence of low wage and insecure jobs, or “precarious employment.” One in six workers in the province is making a poverty wage. Whether employed part-time in the fast-food industry or working as a security guard through a temp agency, the growing ranks of the working poor live in a world of labour market insecurity. Many workers cycle between low-wage employment and periods on social assistance, as they don’t often have the hours required to qualify for employment insurance.

Business needs these workers to maintain the low-wage-big-profits model of the “Wal-Mart economy” in which the rich get richer and the poor get dead end jobs. And governments across the country are in no mood to provide decent jobs through an expansion of public sector employment, or reverse the deregulation of labour markets that they’ve so vigorously pursued. With these shifting trends in employment, welfare functions to ensure a cheap and flexible workforce to populate the lower reaches of the province’s labour market. To paraphrase University of British Columbia professor Jamie Peck, welfare today is not about creating jobs for people who don’t have them but about creating workers for jobs nobody wants.

Miserly benefit levels, restrictive eligibility criteria and the ritualized stigmatization of those who must navigate the administrative maze that is welfare, are all in keeping with the government’s desire to ensure a job at any wage, under any conditions, remains prefer able to the receipt of social assistance. The province’s tooth-and-nail fight to keep social assistance recipients from having greater access to the special diet program (which they may do away with altogether) is only the latest manifestation of maintaining the principle of less eligibility.

So the rich benefit from a system that pushes the poor into low-wage jobs. Low wages mean bigger profits for those who own and control the majority of wealth. And employed workers who see the treatment doled out to those on social assistance think twice about leaving a bad job for welfare. So what are poor people and their allies to do when faced with a welfare system designed to do more damage than good? Well, the first thing we can do is join organizations like Peel Poverty Action Group (PPAG) and fight like hell to better the system and our lives. Our collective strength is greater than that of any one individual. Second, we need to work with our partners in the labour movement to ensure that all jobs are good jobs with living wages. Together we can ensure that both the welfare system and the labour market provide economic security and dignity. Only then will we have a system that benefits the rest of us and not the rich.


Published in Tough Times Summer 2012


“Those in Power Don’t Like Us; Nor Should They”: A Conversation with Anti-Poverty Activist John Clarke

Tuesday, April 3rd, 2012

John Clarke is one of Ontario’s most well-known anti-poverty activists. As an organizer with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, Clarke has been on the frontlines of poor peoples’ struggles for over twenty years. Tough Times contributor Simon Black recently sat down with Clarke to discuss organizing, the social assistance review process, and what the future holds for low-income Ontarians.

Simon Black: You’ve been organizing in low-income communities for over twenty years now. Can you reflect on what works and what doesn’t in poor people’s organizing?

John Clarke: Twenty years of OCAP organizing has probably raised more questions than it has provided answers.  Still, there are some sides to the issue that seem to me to stand out.  The first point really is the basis on which you organize.  In OCAP we have rejected the idea that poor people can win anything by ‘educating’ governments or by trying to be polite and respectable.  Workers in unions won what they have by going on strike.  The poor are not likely to have that power so they have to ask themselves what they can use instead.  If you are unemployed or homeless, the system has decided to exclude you and, at best, provide with a pittance to survive on.  In that situation, what they want from you is to be as quiet and invisible as possible.  The key to your power, then, lies with your ability to get together with others in the same situation as yourself and do the very opposite of what they expect of you.

The great unemployed movements of the 1930s organized resistance to the poverty of that time by taking large scale disruptive actions.  Masses of unemployed took over relief offices to press demands for income.  Hundreds blocked attempts to evict poor families from their housing.  These kinds of actions took place on a scale that forced governments to meet peoples’ needs.  OCAP tries to take a similar approach.  Those in power don’t like us and nor should they.  We are working to create a rebellion against the conditions of poverty and those conditions continue to worsen and increase the need for strong and determined resistance.

I would also say that this approach may be the right one but no form of organizing in poor communities is easy.  You have to overcome peoples’ hesitation and belief that little can be done.  You have to root yourself in a community and prove your worth as an organization over a long period of time.  We have, of course, taken up many broad campaigns but we have also put a premium on actions that deal with the problems of individual people and families.  Delegations to welfare offices to win benefits, and other such actions, have always been a big part of what we do.  We really do believe that it is possible to build an organization of the poor that is not a kind of therapy session but that really does fight to win.

SB: How does OCAP differ from other poor peoples’ organizations such as ACORN?

JC: I think the fundamental difference we have with most anti poverty initiatives that operate today is around the notion I just put forward.  The opposite idea to mobilizing disruptive collective action is to try and show those in power that you are a well behaved and responsible voice of the poor.  The emphasis is placed, with this approach, on lobbying politicians and getting supportive media coverage.  The problem with it is you don’t have anything those in power need.  They are happy to let you stay in poverty and see no reason to do otherwise as long as you are working to keep the poor passive and following the rules.  You may organize some demonstrations but they will be run as moral appeals to those in power to ‘do the right thing’.

We don’t think that this respectable approach to anti poverty organizing has ever been the right way to go but, in today’s situation, where they are cutting back on social programs and ramming austerity down our throats, it is a hopeless approach.  In Toronto, we deal with Mayor Rob Ford.  What could poor people say to him to convince him to be kinder and gentler?  At the provincial level, we are now dealing with the report from Don Drummond that advocates measures that are many times worse than anything Mike Harris ever did.  That is the direction those in power intend to go.  The have to understand that poor people will fight back or they will see no reason to hold back on what they are doing.  Those who want to issue appeals and hold polite meetings with politicians are not just wasting their time. Whatever their intentions, they are diverting people from what needs to be done.

SB: What do you think of the McGuinty government’s poverty reduction strategy and the social assistance review process? What are the benefits and pitfalls of poor peoples’ organizations participating in such a review?

JC: The McGuinty government came to power in order to consolidate and deepen the social cutbacks and giveaways to the rich that the Harris Tories established.  However, they didn’t choose to be as up front and confrontational as Harris had been.  They choose to create the impression that they were going to put things back in place.  Welfare and ODSP rates are actually much lower, in terms of their spending power, than they were when the Tories left office.  However, McGuinty has covered his tracks with a sham display of ‘poverty reduction’.  At at time when we should have been filling the streets to demand decent income from this Government, people were wasting their time going through an endless process of consultation with the Liberals.

Looking back, it is truly breathtaking to realize how long this Government was able to pull the wool over peoples’ eyes.  Reviews, studies, committees, hearings on poverty reduction went on for years while the poor became poorer. It was, from their point of view, a highly successful strategy.  Apart from the campaign to win the Special Diet for people on assistance and the mobilizing to confront the Liberals that OCAP and allies engaged in during this time, ‘anti poverty activism’ moved into the corridors of Queen’s Park and the theory of ‘constructive engagement’ was all the rage.  This came down to the notion that the Liberals would really reduce poverty if we could only make clear enough arguments.  Of course, they were sly enough to play along and created the impression that they were seriously interested in these ideas.  The only factor that could have forced concessions from the Government would have been a challenge to them on poverty but the friendly lobby that they kept around them took things in the exactly opposite direction.  The poor got less than nothing as a result.

Since 2008, the crisis that has broken in the world economy has swept all this away.  McGuinty no longer has the luxury of appearing nice and caring.  His Government is getting ready to cut programs and slash spending as is every level of government.  The choices for poor and working people are to accept this and retreat before the austerity agenda of to organize and fight back.  This is going to be a very hard time but it is going to be a time when the ideas and approaches of OCAP are going to more relevant than they have ever been.


Published in Tough Times 1 (1) 2012

Ontario’s Poor Can’t Wait

Thursday, March 8th, 2012

In my latest op-ed for The Toronto Star, I discuss how quiet acceptance of austerity is not a realistic option for those living on the economic edge.

During the last two weeks in Ontario politics, we have seen a tale of two reports. The Drummond report has received a great deal of attention and rightly so: as the Star’s own Martin Regg Cohn put it, “Cutbacks are back and bigger than ever. And this time, they’re here to stay.” Millions of Ontarians, but especially the poor and middle class, stand to be impacted should the government act on Drummond’s recommendations.

Yet another report, that of the Commission for the Review of Social Assistance, slipped under the media’s radar and was greeted with little fanfare by the government and general public alike. This report discusses different approaches to improving some of the key areas of the province’s welfare system and is an important step in the broader review process headed by ex-StatsCan chief Munir Sheik and former United Way of Greater Toronto CEO Frances Lankin.

The review of social assistance plays a key role in the provincial government’s poverty reduction strategy, announced by the premier and welcomed by anti-poverty advocates back in 2008. Sheik and Lankin have embarked on an extensive consultation process, speaking with social workers, policy experts, business leaders, people with lived experience of poverty, and anti-poverty advocates. Their final report, which will make recommendations that will enable government to “remove barriers and increase opportunities for people to work,” is to be released this summer.

While the Drummond report takes a largely hands-off approach to social assistance, deferring to the work of the commission, much in it runs counter to the spirit and stated goals of both the review of social assistance and the broader strategy of poverty reduction. For one, Drummond recommends rolling back the Ontario Child Benefit (OCB), a subsidy that helps low-income families provide for their children. The OCB has been partially credited with the small but nevertheless important reduction in child poverty Ontario has seen over the past few years.

But more generally the report is silent on the concerns of the poor, from much-needed increases in child-care funding to the construction of more affordable housing. Drummond was, after all, primarily tasked with discerning where to make cuts, not how to expand social programs.

If acted upon, Drummond’s austerity package could well push Ontario’s unemployment rate into double-digits. With the federal government’s continued reticence to expand eligibility for employment insurance, thousands more Ontarians could turn to a welfare system that currently does more to punish than help the poor, who have yet to recover from the 22 per cent cut to welfare imposed by the Harris Tories back in 1995. McGuinty has raised rates slightly, but these increases have not kept up with inflation. If welfare was to be returned to pre-Harris levels, the government would have to raise rates by close to 60 per cent. You can be sure that such an increase is not in the cards in the current political climate.

So the next few years, likely the next decade, look tough for low-income Ontarians. Lower child-care subsidies, larger waiting lists for social housing, persistent unemployment and more people caught in the dire dilemma of whether to feed the kids or pay the rent. Changes to employment standards and labour law, which could create the conditions to lift people out of poverty, will be derided as “unfriendly to business.”

How then do the poor make gains in a climate of austerity? Before we mine history for answers we must first ask: “Who are the poor?” The obvious answer is, “those living at or below the poverty line,” but many of us live one paycheque away from poverty. What happens to social assistance and other social supports should be a concern for us all.

And as a recent Metcalf Foundation report concluded, between 2000 and 2005 the number of working poor increased by 42 per cent, numbering 113,000 people in the Toronto region alone. Those numbers have certainly risen since the Great Recession began in 2008. And an even larger number of people are near-poor. The poor are not only those living on social assistance.

Before the great labour struggles of the 1930s and ’40s, the poor were, like today, both working people and those out of work. Those struggles led to the legitimization of unions, the construction of the welfare state, and a greater share of society’s wealth going to labour.

In the 1960s, unions and anti-poverty organizations pushed for the expansion of social programs and lessened inequality. They marched, they protested, they made noise.

In the mid-1980s, anti-poverty, labour and women’s groups mobilized to influence the direction of the provincial Liberal-NDP coalition’s social assistance review. Poor people’s marches snaked through three of Ontario’s largest cities. The end result was a 25 per cent increase in welfare rates and the humanization of many aspects of a stigmatizing and punitive system.

History shows us that poor people’s silence will be met with government inaction. As American academics Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward put it in their classic book Regulating the Poor, “A placid poor get nothing, but a turbulent poor sometimes get something.” The Drummond report tells poor people they must wait. Now it is up to the poor to reply: “We will not.”

Simon Black is a researcher in urban social policy at the City Institute at York University and a member of Peel Poverty Action Group.

published in The Toronto Star, March 3 2012 IN6

Unsung Heroes of the Third City

Tuesday, December 27th, 2011

2011 will be remembered as the year when inequality moved from the margins to the mainstream of public discourse. No longer just the purview of anti-poverty activists, progressive economists and the political left, this year figures as unlikely as Finance Minister Jim Flaherty and Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney felt pushed to publicly acknowledge the widening gap between the rich and the rest, or as the Occupy movement has put it: the 1 per cent and the 99.

In Ontario, the loss of high-paying manufacturing jobs, the growth of precarious employment, the dismantling of the social safety net, and the weakening of a trade union movement that once was a strong force for a more egalitarian society have allowed inequality and poverty to grow relatively unchecked for close to three decades. The idea that free markets and globalization deliver prosperity for all has been thoroughly debunked by the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression. Prosperity has been concentrated in the hands of too few at the expense of too many.

And as report after report has concluded, our city has not been immune from these socio-economic trends. As researchers at the University of Toronto’s Cities Centre have documented, over the last 30 years Toronto has become a greatly unequal place, segregated by income into three distinct cities:

City #1 consists of the richer and whiter downtown core and the well-heeled neighbourhoods that abut the city’s subway lines.

Toronto’s middle-income neighbourhoods make up City #2, shrinking in size as we become a more socially and economically polarized metropolis. The number of high-poverty neighbourhoods in Toronto has more than quadrupled since 1980.

City #3 — or the Third City — is made up of Toronto’s low-income neighbourhoods, with their high concentrations of racialized poverty. Generally found in the northeastern and northwestern parts of Toronto, incomes in these “inner” suburbs have declined 20 per cent or more since 1970.

While we have become accustomed to thinking of Toronto’s Third City geographically, as particular areas and neighbourhoods, the Third City can also be understood as an urban condition: a set of experiences that together amount to exclusion from the full political, economic and cultural life of our city. For instance, living in the Third City means not having enough money to take your children to the zoo or museum; it is having to choose between feeding the kids and paying the rent; it is commuting two hours to work on inadequate public transit; it is being denied a job because of your accent, the colour of your skin, or your postal code; it is being charged exorbitant interest rates by payday lenders; it is being denied access to channels of political influence for lack of resources and excluded from civic debates.

Cuts to public transit, child care, recreation centres, libraries and community grants stand to exacerbate this exclusion. People living on low incomes cannot afford to purchase equivalent goods and services on the market — things like private child care or nursery school, owning and operating a car, fitness club memberships or summer camps for kids.

No Toronto neighbourhood has become more associated with the Third City than Jane-Finch. But behind the negative media headlines and dire poverty statistics, there are people working hard to stitch together a social fabric torn by decades of rising poverty and inequality. They are the unsung heroes of the Third City, the people and organizations we hear little about.

Women like Stephanie Payne, the indefatigable matriarch of Jane-Finch who heads up the San Romanoway Revitalization Association (SRRA). The association’s work has led to the renewal of an apartment complex long stigmatized for its association with crime and poor living conditions. Payne and the staff at the SRRA provide programs for isolated seniors, recreation for community youth, and gang-prevention initiatives.

While she is haunted by the deaths of too many of the community’s young men, Payne carries on her work emboldened by positive results as reports find crime in the complex has declined and residents’ quality of life has improved. “This is a dynamic community and people come together when good things are happening,” Payne reflects. “But when I look at the budgets and see this program and that program have to be discontinued, I think what am I going to do with the youngsters out there, are they going to be back on the corner? If they don’t have our supports, they will be back out there. That’s what I worry about.”

Organizations such as Lost Lyrics face the same uncertainty. Lost Lyrics is an alternative education program that uses hip hop culture to reach students who struggle in the mainstream education system and are often labelled as having behavioural issues. Working out of a Jane-Finch community centre, the organization has successfully bridged the streets and the classroom, empowering young people to change their lives and critically engage the world around them. But as Lost Lyrics co-founder Amanda Parris puts it: “under this mayor, our access to resources is steadily shrinking. Our programs are in a precarious position and our capacity to sustain them is riddled with question marks.”

Christopher Penrose runs another highly successful Jane-Finch program, Success Beyond Limits, which provides summer programs, peer tutoring, and co-op opportunities for local youth. He has seen the city’s budget plans and warns: “As things are right now, pre-cuts, there’s not enough. Not enough for programming, to address all the issues our youth face. . . .

“We’ve been to funerals, we deal with youth who have lost people, we deal with young people who come to school hungry. We see the effects of poverty on a daily basis. It’s traumatic. Now we are being re-traumatized by politicians who negate our experiences, making decisions that are going to lead to more poverty, more hardship. It is more than just frustrating; it is hurtful to see the direction this city is going.”

Jade Lee Hoy, an outreach coordinator with community arts organization Manifesto, another Jane-Finch mainstay, echoes Penrose’s frustrations, “When you cut these programs, we are losing talent, opportunity and energies that could be vital to our city.” Lee Hoy notes that neighbourhoods like Jane-Finch are vibrant and resilient places with a strong sense of community despite the many challenges they face.

The likes of Payne, Parris, Lee Hoy and Penrose are people whose intelligence, drive and ingenuity could earn them the big bucks on Bay Street. But they don’t migrate to corporate Canada. Instead, they work daily to cobble together grant applications, counsel the vulnerable and uplift a community. They work to mitigate the effects of poverty and marginalization. And they do so with meagre budgets, little compensation, and an abiding frustration with governments’ lack of commitment to social justice and progressive change.

Of course they reap rewards as well: the joy experienced when a troubled youth turns their life around, the deep sense of fulfillment gained when mentees grow to become mentors, the satisfaction earned watching the transformation of those deemed “at-risk” into those understood by community, peers and parents alike to be empowered. They do this work out of love; love for their community and ultimately love for our city.

As philosopher Cornel West has said, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” With cuts to city services and social programs looming on the political horizon, we are about to see just how much love our city has for neighbourhoods like Jane-Finch.

Published in The Toronto Star Dec 23 2011

Cities on High Alert

Tuesday, October 11th, 2011

Here’s my latest op-ed on urban issues for The Toronto Star. They have a habit of changing my titles; this one was originally “The Age of Urban Unrest?”

Last week, New York City’s mayor Michael Bloomberg rang alarm bells when he said that high unemployment could lead to mass social unrest in cities across the United States.  “You have a lot of kids graduating college who can’t find jobs. That’s what happened in Cairo. That’s what happened in Madrid. You don’t want those kinds of riots here,” Bloomberg explained. The mayor was not alone in this assessment. Former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn said as much back in 2008; “unemployment,” he declared, “represents a risk to the stability of existing democracies.”

Bloomberg’s warning came with his endorsement of President Obama’s new jobs creation bill. As a big city mayor, Bloomberg knows too well that the social problems associated with high unemployment, widening inequality, and economic stagnation are most acute in urban centres. Whereas Strauss-Kahn’s words proved prophetic, Bloomberg was learning from recent history.

Since the onset of the global economic crisis back in 2007-2008, cities have seen rising levels of violence and social unrest: riots and looting in the UK, intensified gang violence in major US cities, street clashes in Athens, flash robs in Philadelphia, mass protests in Madrid, ghetto dwellers and security forces facing off in Kingston, Jamaica, rival drug cartels engaged in shootouts in Juarez, Mexico; the list goes on. As many political observers have remarked, a driving force behind the Arab Spring – apart from an unquenched thirst for democracy – is unemployment, and in particular, extremely high levels of youth unemployment.

Non-governmental organizations have started making the connections as well. A recent report from the International Red Cross, entitled Urban Violence: War By Any Other Name observes, “Around the world, cities are experiencing an alarming increase in violence and its resulting misery…Chronic conflict makes daily life in some places almost like living in a war zone.”

And images of urban unrest not only flash nightly across our TV screens and occupy the pages of our newspapers, they also permeate our popular culture as never before: just watch recent science fiction films like Attack the Block, District 9, and Battle: Los Angeles. The city as a place of conflict and civil disorder is part of our cultural zeitgeist.

We have then, it appears, entered an age of urban unrest.

But London is not Philadelphia and Cairo not Kingston. From riots and looting, to mass protest, flash robs, and gang warfare, there are very different types of urban violence and social unrest with seemingly disparate causes. But while poverty, inequality, and unemployment do not tell the full story in all places, they do tell much of the story in many places.

In the case of the UK’s recent disorder, we have learned from The Guardian newspaper that the vast majority of rioters brought before the courts are young, poor, and unemployed. In the Tottenham neighbourhood, where the riots began, 54 people chase every one available job.

Where austerity and cutbacks to government services deepen poverty and unemployment, unrest soon follows.  Two Barcelona-based economists have published research which clearly shows a link between the variables. Empirical data on close to forty European and Latin American countries demonstrates a positive statistical association between government spending cuts, unemployment and levels of unrest, including anti-government demonstrations, riots, strikes and attempted revolutions.

In addition, path-breaking research by social epidemiologists has found that among advanced democracies, more equal societies (and by extension, cities) are also more socially stable and less violent.

In the absence of work and of hope, different ways of organizing human activity fill the social void. The anomie brought on by unemployment and other forms of social exclusion can be addressed through participation in other social groupings, sometimes a gang, sometimes a mob, sometimes a radical political or religious organization. When channelled into movements seeking to address legitimate grievances, as in the Arab Spring, urban unrest, disruption and disorder can be welcomed. History tells us that rough means can sometimes bring about progressive ends, especially when democratic channels are closed to those suffering injustice. Yet few urban denizens welcome the type of violence and disruption that causes misery, damage, and distress in their lives and in the life of their city.

We live in an urban age.  In 1950, less than 30% of the world’s population were city dwellers. Now, for the first time in human history, the world’s urban population outnumbers its rural. As never before, the fate of humanity is tightly intertwined with the fate of the city. And whether we live in Toronto or Tokyo, Lagos or Los Angeles, safety and security are necessary conditions for a flourishing urbanity and a decent quality of life. As even the conservative-leaning Mayor of New York City has realized, addressing inequality, deprivation and unemployment with meaningful government action is central to maintaining social cohesion in an era of economic uncertainty.

Published Oct 11 2011 in The Toronto Star, pg. A19