Tamra Smith, chair of grassroots anti-poverty group Norfolk RISE, wants the province to double social assistance rates that have been frozen for years.J.P. Antonacci, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Ontarians receiving social assistance already live below the poverty line and the rising cost of food is making matters worse.

That stark reality prompted Haldimand-Norfolk’s board of health to join  anti-poverty groups in urging the Ford government to raise social  assistance rates.

The Ontario Works (OW) benefit for unemployed low-income Ontarians has been frozen at $733 per month since 2018.

And while Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) payments increased by 6.5 per cent in July after the province indexed that benefit to inflation, advocates  say the monthly stipend of $1,308 still falls short.

“For many, incomes are not enough to cover even basic expenses,” public  health dietician Laura Goyette told the board of health last week.

“Inflation in 2022 reached a 40-year high, so this is obviously a pressing issue.”

As underscored by the United Way in that organization’s call for higher social assistance rates, the poverty line in Ontario for a single person is $2,302 per  month, based on the federal Market Basket Measurement.

The health unit found that  after paying rent and buying the cheapest groceries available, Haldimand-Norfolk residents on ODSP have less than $100 left over to  cover utilities, phone and internet, transportation, child care and  hygiene items.

Local Ontario Works recipients have the “most dire” situation, Goyette said,  as they are in the hole by nearly $150 before factoring in any of those  expenses.

And those numbers might be worse still, as the health unit calculates rent as  though recipients already live in rent-controlled buildings. Rent would  be “much higher” for people setting out to find an apartment today,  Goyette said.

This latest call for higher social assistance rates comes as food insecurity  is rising in Haldimand-Norfolk, where one in six households have  “inadequate or insecure access to food due to financial constraints,”  Goyette said.

Based on a survey of local grocery stores last May, the health unit found the  monthly cost for a family of four to eat a healthy diet is $1,222.43, up  5.5 per cent from 2022.

For a middle-income family, that represents about 12 per cent of monthly  spending. But that same family with one full-time worker making minimum  wage spends 27 per cent of income on food, while an Ontario Works  recipient devotes almost half their stipend to groceries.

Not eating enough healthy food risks a raft of physical and mental-health problems that tax the health-care system, Goyette said.

“Food insecurity is not a food issue. There is enough food,” she said. “It’s truly rooted in income.”

That is a sentiment shared by grassroots anti-poverty group RISE Norfolk,  whose members have petitioned the Ford government to double ODSP and OW  rates.

“We’ve  been telling them for a while that it wasn’t enough,” RISE chair Tamra  Smith told The Spectator, saying it is “unfair” that social assistance  recipients make less than the $2,000 per month the federal government  deemed essential to live during COVID-19 pandemic.

Current ODSP and OW rates are “a far cry from that,” Smith said.

“There is money out there, but they’re not putting it where it’s needed.”

Haldimand-Norfolk MPP Bobbi Ann Brady made tying ODSP to inflation part of her platform in the 2022 election.

“People are there through no fault of their own, and we have to do better for them,” Brady told The Spectator in an interview.

A self-described “fiscal conservative,” Brady said she “strongly  supports” getting more money into the hands of people on disability  assistance.

“This is a situation where we know if we put more money into ODSP, their lives would be better,” Brady said.

“They would eat better, get better health care and stay out of our hospitals, and it would save us money in the long run.”

Brady would also like to see ODSP recipients who want to work part-time not  have their benefits correspondingly “clawed back,” which she considers a  disincentive to work.

To coincide with indexing ODSP to inflation — which the province touted as  the largest increase in decades — the Ford government also quadrupled  the earnings exemption (how much recipients can earn before their  benefits are reduced) to $1,000 each month.

“It’s very depressing that we  do have, in this day and age, individuals struggling with food  insecurity,” Coun. Kim Huffman told the board of health.

“It’s not that we don’t have food, it’s that poverty increases food insecurity significantly.”

The  board voted to send a letter to the province applauding the move to  raise ODSP rates and asking that Ontario Works payouts also be linked to  inflation to “ensure that everyone receiving social assistance could  afford their basic needs.”

Smith,  who started collecting ODSP after a car accident left her unable to  work, says this issue should be of concern to all Ontarians, not just  those on social assistance.

“One accident or loss of job and they’re in the same position as the rest of us,” she said.

By J.P. Antonacci, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Mar 12, 2024 at 12:01

This item reprinted with permission from   The Spectator   Hamilton, Ontario
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