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Raise the Rates provincial strategy day

Reg McQuaid

March 29, 2013

Close to 50 anti-poverty activists from across Ontario gathered at St. Luke’s United Church in Toronto on Saturday, March 16 for a strategy session around the upcoming provincial budget and beyond. The full-day event was sponsored by the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) and the CUPE-Ontario Social Service Workers Coordinating Committee. PSAC and OPSEU members also took part, as well as anti-poverty groups from Kingston, Kitchener-Waterloo, Sudbury and Toronto.
The Raise The Rates Campaign, which is widely endorsed by social service organizations, calls for a restoration of the 21.6 per cent in social assistance rates implemented under Mike Harris in 1995, plus upward adjustment to compensate for 16 years of inflation. This would bring the single person rate up to $936, an increase of 55 per cent over the present $606. The campaign also calls for lifting the Minimum Wage freeze of the last three years, and raising the rate to $14/hr (the official poverty level). 
The Community Start-Up and Maintenance Benefit (CSUMB) was downloaded to the municipal level last year, with a cap on total funds available. A number of the smaller municipalities have yet to set up CSUMB programs.  Raise The Rates wants the CSUMB to be restored to its previous form and level. The Special Diet Allowance, which is being eliminated to offset the $100/mo. increase in the Ontario Works (OW) rate, must also be restored.
In February the new-look Liberal government of Kathleen Wynne revealed its “smoke-and-mirrors” response to last year’s Social Assistance Reform Commission report. Their proposal would see an additional $100/month for single employables on OW, and the right to keep up to $200/month of income (before clawback) for every one else. The estimated cost of these proposed increases to social assistance is put by OCAP at $302 million.
However, these improvements are more than offset by cuts elsewhere in benefits currently available to people on social assistance. These include eliminating the Special Diet Allowance ($240 million); cutting the Community Start-Up and Maintenance Benefit ($70.6 million); cap on discretionary benefits ($20 million); elimination of Home Repairs Benefit ($3 million); non-indexation of rates (2012 increase of 1 per cent, vs. cost-of-living increase of 3 per cent).  Total cuts to assistance are estimated at $334 million, not counting the impact of inflation.
The Liberal government says it has an anti-poverty agenda, but after ten years in power it has not moved to reverse the Harris cuts. Instead of action it continues to study the problem through commissions and committees and reports, while the poor sink further into poverty. The unemployed and unemployable cannot exert pressure by withdrawing their labour, as do unions, but they can make their voices heard through direct action, such as sit-ins and occupations. Last December they convinced the government to find another $42 million, money it claimed it didn’t have, to fund CSUMB.
On March 16 OCAP and its labour allies outlined a 12-month strategy around the poverty issue. Key dates are the provincial budget (expected April 28), a possible (spring?) election, and the OFL convention in November.  Pressure will be put on the NDP to demand significant improvements in the social assistance proposals currently being put forward by the minority Liberal government.  If the government falls, the anti-poverty issue will be kept front and centre in the election campaign. At the OFL convention, efforts will be made to broaden labour support for the Raise The Rates program.
Participants in the strategy session put social assistance cuts in the context of the austerity agenda being implemented by governments around the world, part of an ongoing transfer of wealth to the 1%.  The capitalists want to drive people on social assistance into precarious below-poverty-level jobs, adding to the downward pressure on wages throughout the economy.  The employed and those on social assistance have a common interest in resisting this austerity agenda.  The OCAP/CUPE alliance is a hopeful example of concrete action to this end.
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