Poverty Reduction Strategy: Being Heard and Involved

Sep 23 2014

Poverty Free Kitchener-Waterloo Action Group is keen to find out how local groups who are already active in poverty reduction work can be recognized and supported through the provincial Poverty Reduction Strategy to continue their work that brings those with lived poverty experience into the process as experts in their own right. Read below our comments on the provincial Poverty Reduction Strategy and get in touch to share yours.

The following is an analysis of Realizing Our Potential: Ontario’s Poverty Reduction Strategy 2014-2019 on two of the criteria from the Dignity and Respect for All Framework created by Social Planning Council of Kitchener-Waterloo with Poverty Free K-W partners: 


#1: Adequate Income to Support Well-being and Health

Adequate and stable income will enable people to cover living costs out of their own pockets. The importance of adequate income is a message we have been carrying forward from our community together with many other communities and networks across the entire province.

The social assistance rates and minimum wage levels laid out in the strategy are not adequate. The Regional Municipality of Waterloo has calculated that an individual receiving Ontario Works needs an additional $200/month to cover their basic food and shelter costs. 

These people are already behind when they receive a cheque. On this point alone, Ontario’s strategy can’t adequately address poverty in this province. 

And, indexing already inadequate rates and minimum wage will lock people into poverty. Ensuring adequate incomes is the first crucial step to successfully address any of the problems outlined in Ontario’s strategy such as homelessness or low educational achievement. 

• It is imperative to increase the base rate of social assistance to bring all recipients out of deep poverty. Poverty Free Ontario has defined deep poverty as below 80% of the Ontario Low Income Measure so, to be adequate, social assistance rates need to be above that benchmark. 

Furthermore, any increase to social assistance rates must not be paid for by reducing other benefits, such as has happened with the the Basic allowance for single parents receiving recent increases in Child Benefit.

• To ensure that low wage workers are not living in poverty, minimum wage must be increased to at least 20% above the Low Income Measure, so that all full-time, full-year workers earn incomes above the poverty line.

Minimum wage should not be considered ‘adequate’ merely because it has reached a set number, it should be considered ‘adequate’ only when it reflects the required purchasing power to bring people out of poverty. 

#7: Underlying Assumptions of System Plans and Reforms Are not Being Blaming and Punitive

Poverty Free K-W group members welcome the overall thrust of the strategy and its emphasis on the right of all Ontarians to realize their potential. We also applaud the language of the document, which is careful to refer to people and families “experiencing” or “living in” poverty. This phrasing implies, correctly in our view, that poverty is a failing of society to provide adequately for its members, rather than of the individuals who comprise what the document describes as “vulnerable populations”. In addition, the language employed implies that poverty is not a permanent state but rather one that can be reduced (we would prefer, eliminated) through effective action on the part of government at all levels working together with the various sectors that comprise civil society.

At the same time, however, our assessment of the document reveals problematic assumptions about the role of employment and jobs in reducing poverty which, to some extent, contradicts what we lauded in the previous paragraph. For example, in the introductory letter, the focus of the strategy is described as “supporting employment and income security for the most vulnerable in our province”. And early in the strategy document itself (page 4), employment is described as “the key to reducing poverty”. By logical extension, is the ‘key’ to get out of poverty only for those who are employed? 

The primacy given to employment raises three concerns. The first arises from the realities of the job market. In this age of globalized labour, standardized employment relationships (i.e. full-time employment where the worker has one employer, works in the employer’s premises, and has access to extensive social benefits and statutory entitlements) are no longer the norm. Fully one-third of workers in Ontario now have precarious jobs, that is, jobs characterized by high levels of uncertainty, low income, a lack of control over the labour process, and limited access to regulatory protections.[1] Without job security, income security is elusive at best.

A second concern is the implication that as long as the right supports are in place and barriers are removed, all youth and adults in Ontario can be employed in waged jobs at sufficient pay to cover all of their living costs. The reality is that there are barriers to employment that will not yield readily, if at all, to interventions and supports. Among these barriers are conditions in the marketplace itself or challenges individuals face such as chronic anxiety or neurological damage that may be hidden from view but are nonetheless permanently debilitating. These conditions make waged employment either not available or not possible for some in most workplace settings.

Following from this concern is a final one, namely, the implication that waged employment is the primary or sole means by which individuals can contribute to their communities and to society at large. This is clearly not the case. Many individuals for whom the structure of the workplace is out of their reach or that creates a difficult or impossible environment in which to operate can and do make invaluable contributions. This can be through reduced work or through their work as members of the community and volunteers, lending wisdom from their lived experience to building communities that understand and welcome diversity. Enabling these individuals to voice their experiences and needs, and challenge existing preconceptions and structures, is as important a role and obligation for governments as is the provision of employment supports and regulation.