Ontario assistance needs to rise up to meet soaring food prices
by Paul Taylor
Originally published in Now Magazine March 28, 2022
When I was a teenager in the mid-90s, then-Ontario premier Mike Harris slashed social assistance rates by 21.6 per cent. Overnight, my family’s modest grocery list went from meat and vegetables to instant noodles, day-old everything and a lot of hot dog wieners – that is, if we were lucky to find them on sale. More days than not, I went to school hungry.
This year, thousands of children in Ontario will be feeling these same hunger pangs. Food prices have soared by 6.5 per cent, the largest annual jump in more than a decade. For the average family in 2022, this means that an extra $966 must be found just to meet their basic food needs.
If you’re on social assistance, meeting a sudden increase is inconceivable. A single person with a severe disability in Ontario receives just $1,169 a month to cover shelter and all costs of living from the Ontario Disability Support Program. I challenge anyone, in any Ontario community, to attempt to survive on that. It should be no surprise that a third of people on ODSP report that they regularly don’t have enough food to eat, even before factoring in recent price increases.
The fact that our governments haven’t taken swift action to raise social assistance in response to skyrocketing food costs is a clear failure of leadership. However, there’s something far more pernicious at play: social assistance rates don’t even acknowledge standard inflation increases.
In 2004, the most a single person could receive from ODSP was $930 per month, or the equivalent of about $1,308.12 today. That means that at their current rate of $1,169, ODSP payments now are worth less than they were 18 years ago, while rental prices in cities like Toronto have nearly doubled.
Last November, MPP Suze Morrison pressed Minister of Children, Community and Social Services Merrilee Fullerton on stagnant social assistance rates, noting that rising food costs would surely lead to food insecurity among the poorest Ontarians. In response, Minister Fullerton claimed that the government had “looked at the food security issue” and given $1 billion for “food bank support,” almost certainly in reference to the larger Social Services Relief Fund, which was divided among all sorts of community initiatives.
Yet the data has repeatedly shown that food charity simply doesn’t combat poverty or food insecurity. Only 21 per cent of food insecure households access programs like food banks, and if they do, they can’t be certain that the food they’ll receive will meet their dietary or cultural needs. A meaningful correlation between a community’s access to food charity and a decrease in its rates of chronic food insecurity has never been observed in Canada.
The most effective remedy for food insecurity is also the simplest: provide people with income to purchase food and their health quickly improves. PROOF, the University of Toronto’s research institute on food insecurity, found that an $1,000 increase in annual welfare income was associated with five per cent lower odds of severe food insecurity.
Other provinces and territories have already learned this lesson. Quebec indexes its social assistance rates to inflation, and as result, there’s now a five per cent difference between their rates of food insecurity and ours. Likewise, after Newfoundland and Labrador introduced a poverty reduction strategy that indexed rates in 2006, food insecurity declined between 2007 and 2012 until the province had the lowest rates of food insecurity in the country.
Making the same switch in Ontario wouldn’t be difficult. In 2021, Ontario’s Financial Accountability Office found substantial underspending in the first two quarters for Ontario Works ($369 million) and ODSP ($83 million), meaning that our government has been defunding social assistance while it boasts of financing food charities. Everyone deserves the right to access food with dignity and joy. Yet every year, our province is penalizing its poorest residents.
The upcoming provincial election is an opportunity for Ontarians to choose whether food is a right or a privilege. I encourage Ontarians to vote with the recognition that the lives of those made most vulnerable in our province depend on it.