Report on low-income vital for Northumberland

First published: June 15, 2006

A major study on low-income Canadians released earlier this week found the social safety net, meant to help those in need, is nothing more than a sieve. Rather than giving people a hand up, we slap them down. In light of this report, it is important Northumberland County residents and politicians take heed.

The Toronto City Summit Alliance, a group of high profile business leaders, academics, labour representatives and activists, released a report done by a special task force on Modernizing Income Security for Working-Age Adults (MISWAA), which identified three key issues plaguing low-income Canadians.

First, many working people are unable to earn enough money to make ends meet even when working full-time for a full year. The study says at least 30 per cent of low-wage workers fall into this group.

Next, Employment Insurance (EI), the federal government’s plan to assist people when they become unemployed, no longer covers the majority of temporarily unemployed people. In fact, in Ontario, only 27 per cent receive EI benefits.

Finally, existing social assistance programs are punitive, making it nearly impossible to escape poverty, and thus, create a “welfare trap” for many people

Task Force Co-Chair Susan Piggott said Monday during the report’s release, the system is 40 years old and is in need of a serious overall. Piggott, who is CEO of St. Christopher House, a major provider of services to low-income Torontonians, said the alliance has put together some recommendations, which include reforming Employment Insurance; tax reform aimed at low-income Canadians; a national disability income support program; increases to minimum wage done through an independent body, not government; a child benefit plan for all low-income parents, including those on social assistance. The list goes on adding a drug and dental assistance plan for low-income people leaving social assistance. There is also a call to strengthen enforcement of employment standards to protect workers.

It also calls for social assistance programs to become a provincial cost, reversing a decision made more than a decade ago to download these costs to local municipalities.

Before anyone goes off saying this is a bunch of socialists or crazy poverty activists pushing a bunch of hooey, the steering committee overseeing the task force study is a blue ribbon group of some of the most influential and successful people in Toronto, reading like a Who’s Who list. Besides Piggott, David Crombie, head of the Urban Institute is a member, along with David Pecaut, ?senior partner, Boston Consulting Group; Elyse Allan, ?CEO, General Electric Canada; Charles Baillie, ?chancellor of Queen’s University; Avie Bennett, chairman of the Board, McClelland & Stewart; Joe Berridge, ?partner, Urban Strategies Inc.; John Cartwright, president, Toronto-York Regional Labour Council; and, Michael “Pinball” Clemons,?president, Toronto Argonauts.

While the study is aimed at the situation in Toronto, Northumberland County faces many of the same problems; yet, little is done for those who are at the lower end of the economic scale. With so many farmers facing tough times and a lack of high paying industrial or other types of employment, the county is slipping into a quiet crisis that must be addressed.

First, there is very little being done to develop affordable housing. Watch the type of homes being approved by municipal councils in West Northumberland and the opposite is true. Home prices are skyrocketing as greedy residents, realtors and developers cash in on a superheated market. Even when Cobourg council had a chance to keep vital apartment housing at the corner of Westwood Drive and Burnham Street, it allowed them to be switched to condominiums. None of the local councils have a working affordable housing policy pushing development of a new stock of units.

Even more alarming is the lack of high paying jobs being generated. Councils can’t pass proposals fast enough to develop box stores and mega malls, yet the types of jobs these new retail businesses create are often minimum wage or slightly better. They tend to be part-time or contract positions to ensure no benefits are paid. It is truly difficult to remember the last time a major manufacturer or a high-tech firm with well-paying, skilled jobs came to Northumberland County.

Then, there are the silent snubs against low-income residents. Sure, people can get subsidies for many activities like the YMCA or other organizations. And, while this may seem like an effort to provide services, the humiliation of going and having to apply is demeaning. Nobody wants to go through the process of divulging all kinds of personal information and disclose financial hardship just to get a break. It is cruel. Instead, municipalities, service organizations and clubs should be more affordable and/or run events far more often that are affordable or free for everyone to enjoy.

Look how tough it is for the Port Hope food bank to find a home. It seems like citizen can find money for all kinds of causes, including a multimillion dollar theatre, but a vital organization, serving those who cannot afford to eat, are left scrambling to find cheap facilities. It is a stark litmus test of our collective priorities and attitudes.

The report released this week should be mandatory reading for all politicians and those wanting to run for office this fall. Instead of marginalizing low-income people and families in our communities, we need an action plan similar to the one created by the Alliance in Toronto. Even if those seeking office in the fall may use this as a strategy to win votes, citizens will not lose. With bold leadership and visionary individuals from all sectors of Northumberland County, we will do the right thing for those who need it the most.

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