This issue has been brought into focus over the last couple of days due to the comments of United Nations' envoy Olivier De Schutter.
But while many in Canada's progressive community may be tempted to feel smug about these comments, as if they are really about the actions of the Right or the result of the "1 per cent," I would suggest that this smugness is largely unwarranted.
The numbers and statistics, the day-to-day facts of this suffering, are very clear.
Back specifically to Ontario, since the fall of the Rae government in 1995 the province has entirely turned its back on the most vulnerable members of our society. Welfare rates, which were cut by 22 per cent in 1995 by Harris and then, appallingly, frozen for eight years, have stayed well below the rate of inflation even under the McGuinty Liberals. In fact, the ONDP has joined in this terrible record by allowing the passage of a budget that "raised" welfare rates by 1 per cent, which actually meant that they were decreased by over 2 per cent versus inflation yet again. Given that the Liberals were in real danger of falling from government, the ONDP had a true opportunity, but failed, to stand up for our sisters and brothers on welfare who have been punished year after year by a neo-Victorian idea that the interests of the allegedly "hard-working" members of the middle and upper middle classes, as well as the very wealthy, come first, despite the fact that aiding the poor would actually cost these classes next to nothing in real terms
Thanks to politicians of all stripes, a single person on welfare in Ontario lives on around $20 a day for EVERYTHING. Rent, food, "recreation," job hunting, etc... Twenty dollars a day. Given what life in Ontario costs, this is a joke. Try living on it.
A single person with a child benefits slightly more and can count on around $56 a day and yearly benefits of a little more than $19,700.
These "benefits" are so low, they actually act as a downward pressure on the general value of labour. They serve to depress wage and income expectations and, by doing so, ensure that subsistence and sub-standard wages seem almost generous by comparison. This is entirely intentional.
In addition, they amount to little more than a subsidy to landlords. A very large proportion of these benefits will go to rent and, as it is basically impossible to actually survive on what is left, we as citizens are essentially turning these "benefits" over to landlords while those who are allegedly supposed to "benefit" from them have little choice but to seek some type of "off-the-books" employment. Your tax dollars as slumlord income subsidy.
What if you are "fortunate" enough to have a full time minimum wage job in Ontario? I add "full time", as many minimum wage workers in Ontario are unable to get a full 40 hours because employers prefer to avoid the issues that come from having too much of a full-time workforce. But assuming you are getting the full $10.25 an hour, 40 hours a week, your yearly income is $21,320. Or, around $59 a day.
Now it is worth noting that relative to inflation social assistance in Ontario has decreased by at least 20 per cent since 1995, including the already noted decrease of over 2 per cent this year. The minimum wage, an issue which was raised by no parliamentary politicians this year, despite the fact that it would cost the government nothing, also remained frozen for a second year in a row meaning it has declined in real terms by over 5 per cent in the last two years.
Our poorest fellow citizens are being asked and forced yet again, to "share the pain" to pay off a debt that was caused entirely by immoral tax cuts and the bailouts of corporations due to the 2008 recession.
The record and impact of Ontario's tax cuts are very clear. These tax cuts are also supported by every party in the legislature, meaning that we continue to subsidize second cars for citizens making $80,000 a year, or a home expansion for families making $120,000 a year, at the direct and demonstrable expense of not only the poor, but the citizens of the lower "middle classes" who get by on paycheque-to-paycheque incomes of $30,000 or $40, 000. Incomes, with all the cuts to services, all the user and tuition fees, etc, that render many of these citizens very close to functional destitution.
In addition, for all except two years of this period, Ontario's economy has grown. Often tremendously. Even at the height of this growth, however, no one made the elimination of poverty a priority.
The reality is that as a society we have abandoned these citizens by choice. Out of motives that range from indifference to political calculation or "realism" or simply due to personal greed. Despite what some might say, in this case the motives do not matter that much; the end result remains identical.
The poor continue to get poorer and working people are placed in ever greater situations of social distress.
One might take pause to note that, for rather obvious reasons and proven time and time again, it is women who disproportionately suffer due to poverty and the decline of social assistance rates. It is difficult to understand how any political party claiming to act in the interests of women or of feminism could countenance or have not attempted to defeat the budget that Ontario just passed.
In addition, there is the fact that in this land of plenty and wealth, over 14 per cent of Ontario's children live in poverty. Children who could not possibly, by even some bizarre logic of the civilization we live in, be actually held responsible for their own situation.
To say that the interests and needs of these children had been ignored by those in our parliament who pledged to protect them would, I think, be a fair comment.
It has been fashionable of late to claim that somehow the "1 per cent" or some tiny proportion of our society is responsible for the greater part of our collective ills. Myself and others have noted the essential fallacy in such a view.
But far worse than the intellectual error of these ideas is their moral error. To equate the suffering and challenges faced by those who make $80,00 a year, who are well within the so-called "99 per cent," with the grim reality of poverty and the challenges faced by those on social assistance is, frankly, wrong. One can only think that it is designed to make the many in the upper middle classes that supported the system until it stropped working for them as individuals feel better about themselves.
It bears no resemblance to reality in any other way. Nor does it note the incredible and very different challenges faced by those millions that our society forces to live in the margins.
In the end, one must note, the governments that brought in these policies were democratically elected. And they got far more than 1 per cent of the vote.
Poverty, especially in the context of a wealthy Ontario, is profoundly immoral. For a fraction of what was spent on auto industry and banking bailouts and squandered in tax cuts to corporations and the top 30 per cent of income earners, we could eradicate not only child poverty in the province, but poverty in general.
We, and our elected representatives, regardless of party, have simply chosen not to do this.
This point cannot be made enough. Whatever the justification and whatever the alleged motivation, the war on Ontario's poor continues and we have all been made a party to it.
It is a political choice that we have made.