Cuts to social assistance are detrimental to our social fabric

The cost of living, affordability and tax breaks are top of mind for people living in Canada. Yet, amid the current federal election campaign, party leaders remain virtually silent on the issue of social assistance or ending poverty.

The term “welfare” is too often used in headlines, perpetuating myths and critiques about social assistance programs and the recipients who use them. While you can’t fault those who aren’t enchanted with the current system, it’s important to remember myths about poverty are designed to generate damaging perceptions toward a necessary social support system. Couple these misconceptions with the logic we will save money in the long run with cuts, puts us even farther behind real transformation.

In the realm of highly discussed topics, bringing up “welfare” or “social assistance” always sparks a lively debate.  Recently, an article went viral with the headline Why Welfare Keeps People Poor”. Despite our various opinions about social assistance, we all need to start asking “why do social assistance programs and policies continue to fail the most vulnerable?”

There is no question we have a serious problem with the current distribution of social assistance.  Amounts allocated through general welfare, disability supports, or other programs, are nominal and often riddled with bureaucratic tape.  Now, pair this with the unfortunate fact many Canadians continue to cling to the misguided belief that poverty is caused by bad personal decisions or individual failures. As a result, the current model of social assistance often keeps people trapped in the cycle of poverty.

This false narrative is extremely harmful.  So, what are some key points we need to keep in mind when we talk about social assistance? And why do we need to pay extra attention when we see government cutbacks on social welfare?

I’m not going to dive into the myths surrounding social assistance (to read more about these myths visit this link). But with social assistance under scrutiny in our changing political climate, this is a pivotal moment to decide the future of millions in Canada. And we want lasting change.

Before the Ontario Basic Income Pilot was cancelled, it served as an example of what an assistance program can do. By receiving an adequate amount of income to pay rent and purchase basic necessities, such as food and clothing, individuals had the ability to thrive.  Individuals in the program were able to seek out and retain jobs, find secure, safe, and stable housing, become entrepreneurs, pursue education and training, all while improving their own and their families’ health and well-being.

Without a robust social safety net, the reality is simple – we are failing social assistance recipients.

Having individuals stuck in the cycle of poverty also has significant economic impacts. For example, a most recent report from Feed Ontario concluded that the cost of poverty in Ontario alone is an astronomical 33 billion dollars annually.

Changing the current methods will require vying for a more effective system.  A system, that consists of a larger, more comprehensive social safety net that isn’t left of the backs of our most vulnerable. Without addressing the root causes such as housing, food security or pharmacare, individuals will continue to fall through the cracks. And with rotating provincial governments, we are seeing even more misconceptions surrounding the various kinds of assistance; be it for single mothers, students or seniors.

What we know for certain is: social assistance will not be fixed by cutting back already insufficient supports. And it certainly will not be fixed by piecemeal and outdated policies.

We need only to look at the example of Ontario and Alberta, where governments have committed to making budget cuts under the banner of “reforms.” These reforms, in no way called for by social assistance recipients, have continually forced people to remain in the cycle of poverty – robbing them of the opportunity to pursue employment, education, or participate meaningfully in their communities, while contributing back to the economy.

And with the reforms set for implementation in Ontario, individuals will have to give up 75% of their earnings on any income made over $300. This becomes a double-edged sword for many recipients desperately trying to escape the cycle of poverty; can I afford to get a job to make ends meet? In addition, employment may mean losing other benefits including rent geared to income (RGI) housing, access to dental services, childcare subsidies and more. This echoes what advocates on the frontlines and people living in poverty themselves, have been saying all along.

Individuals receiving social assistance often live in deep poverty.  It is now widely known that poverty places monumental strains on our communities. And despite social assistance being multifaceted and complex, the bottom line is simple – when people have the means to thrive, everyone reaps the rewards.

Talking about poverty in this election should not be about partisan politics.  Instead, it should be about how all parties must commit to strong poverty reduction policies, laws, and programs, that include adequate social assistance programs.  During this election campaign, it is imperative that candidates, from all sides, highlight how they will commit to ending poverty.

Alexandra Zannis is the Project and Outreach Coordinator at Canada Without Poverty

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