Poverty Makes Us Sick Presentation to Waterloo Regional Council 2013 Budget Hearings, December 5th

Good evening, Chair, Councillors, Community Members.

I am here on behalf of local anti-poverty group Poverty Makes Us Sick.   We are a group of local organizers who have been mobilizing around issues of poverty since 2009, particularly with and for those living in deep poverty on social assistance. Poverty Makes Us Sick’s work is focused on analysis and education, direct community action through individual and collective advocacy and material support, and a range of other forms of direct action to resist the austerity attacks on our communities.  We have been actively involved in the provincial Raise the Rates Campaign, which demands a restoration of OW and ODSP rates to pre-Harris levels (requiring at minimum a 55% increase), the lifting of the minimum wage freeze and an increase to a living wage for everyone in Ontario, and the full restoration of the Special Diet Allowance. 

Our name is inspired by a December 2008 report entitled Poverty Is Making Us Sick, by the Wellesley Institute and the Community Social Planning Council of Toronto, released just before the Ontario Liberal government’s laughable ‘Poverty Reduction Strategy’ was introduced, which once again demonstrated the fact that poverty has profound health consequences.

Quoting from the report:  “Poverty is triggering a devastating health crisis among lower-income people, but the research shows that raising incomes leads to better health. The results confirm for the first time that relatively small increases in incomes of poor Canadians will lead to substantial increases in their health.” The latest findings demonstrate that policy-makers cannot ignore the growing costs of poverty because the costs are relatively smaller than the cost of neglect. ….the researchers demonstrate that every $1,000 increase in income leads to substantial increases in health. For instance, an annual increase of $1,000 in income for the poorest twenty percent of Canadians will lead to nearly 10,000 fewer chronic conditions, and 6,600 fewer disability days every two weeks.  The poorest fifth of Canada’s population face a staggering 358% higher rate of disability compared to the richest fifth. The poor experience major health inequality in many other areas, including 128% more mental and behavioural disorders; 95% more ulcers; 63% more chronic conditions; and 33% more circulatory conditions.”

Therefore, it is clear that we must look at poverty through a health equity lens.

Poverty Makes Us Sick began to mobilize around an earlier round of government’s attacks through the cuts to the Special Diet Allowance that stole healthy food off of poor people’s tables.  We are now hear to speak to you about the next round of cuts – to the Community Start-Up and Maintenance Benefit and Discretionary Benefits – which threaten to steal the roof from over their heads and to deny them access to preventative health and related supports necessary for a reasonable quality of life.  Cuts to these programs will force people onto the streets, increase criminalization, hospitalization, and child apprehension.  It will deny women, youth and children safety in fleeing violence in the home.  It will disproportionately affect those that are already marginalized – who are immigrants and refugees, who are indigenous, racialized, transgendered, criminalized, disabled, or who struggle with perceived or identified mental health challenges.

Again, we have research from the Wellesley Institute to support what any of us who work and live in this community know – that eliminating the CSUMB will have profound health impacts.  Almost exactly four years after the ‘Poverty is Making Us Sick’ report was released, the Wellesley Institute and partner agencies released a response to the province’s decision to cut the CSUMB, entitled ‘The Real Cost of Cutting the Community Start-Up and Maintenance Benefit:  A Health Equity Impact Assessment’.  This report details the various ways that the cuts will harm those on social assistance, primarily by forcing them into homelessness, and calls for the cuts to be reversed.  It further calls on the province to do a full health equity impact assessment and hold off on all cuts until it can ensure that existing health inequities will not be exacerbated.

This report reflects what we are seeing in our work on the ground – a young woman whose mother fled violence through accessing the CSUMB and who herself has relied on start up to survive, a young mom who was sleeping on a friend’s couch when she found out she was pregnant and needed a safe place for her and her baby, a young man recovering from a mental health struggle in a long term care facility who is seeking to transition back into the community. These are the people in our community that we work with, that we know and love, who make up the richness of our community.  In addition to these stories highlighting the vital impact of these programs, we are hearing the fear and desperation in the voices of folks we are supporting who don’t know how they will survive in the face of these cuts, how they will maintain housing or maintain their families.  We hear this fear in the voices of everyone we see at the series of sign up clinics we hold on Tuesdays at the Working Centre that are aimed at helping people in accessing the benefit before it disappears.

Despite the rhetoric we have heard from Minister of Community and Social Services about the ‘exciting changes’ that these cuts will mean for our community, this provincial government is actively engaged in a campaign against the poor.  John Milloy claims that, unlike the Harris government, “we are not going to balance the budget on the backs of the poor”. And he is right. No matter how much this government slashes the benefits and programs aimed at those in our community already struggling to survive in deep poverty, they cannot reach a balanced budget from those cuts. The fact is, poor people are falling further and further behind – now requiring an increase of almost 60% to regain the losses made during the Harris regime (over 20% lost since this government’s tenure began). As the saying goes, you can’t get blood from a stone – and these policies indeed have blood on them.

We have spent much time lately at the office of our local MPP John Milloy, recently dubbed the more appropriate title “Minister of Misery and Homelessness”, to communicate in no uncertain terms that our community will not stand for this continued attack, for the austerity measures being forced on the poor, despite the fact that these cuts could never address the financial challenges we face.

Our actions reflect a mobilization that is happening across our community and across the province.  We are under no illusion that this provincial government will ‘come to its senses’ and restore the CSUMB without a fight.  Therefore, it comes back to us, and it comes back to you.  The community is already stepping up.  Programs are finding creative ways to respond.  Local individuals and groups are stepping forward to make their voices heard, and to share what they have to ensure that people are taken care of to the best of their abilities.  Models of mutual aid and networks of support are developing but that is only one part of the puzzle. 

The other part is you.  This cut is not a ‘fait accompli’.  It is not something that communities must simply accept.  Municipalities and Regions across the province are already resisting on a number of levels – through direct advocacy pressuring the province to reverse the cuts and developing local plans to make up the shortfall (these include but are not limited to Hamilton, Sudbury, district of Nipissing, Chatham-Kent County, and Lambton county). We are sure that many of these discussions have and are happening behind closed doors but this leadership must also happen publicly and forcefully.  In this Region we pride ourselves in our innovativeness, in our creativity in finding solutions for our community in the face of challenges and obstacles.  The cut to the CSUMB is an opportunity for this Region to demonstrate this creativity and its commitment to inclusion.

Secondly, we are echoing the Wellesley Institute’s demand for a health equity lens in examining policy.  The Region’s 2013 budget must clearly demonstrate our shared commitment to health equity and economic justice for all community members.  There has been much talk about the fact that our Region has been unusually ‘generous’ in the use of the CSUMB.  That was relatively easy when the province was covering most of the costs and does not, in fact, speak to the character of our community.  Our decision to maintain these services, to prioritize funding for this program in the face of cuts and difficult choices – that speaks to who we are. The decision to extend full funding for the Discretionary Benefits throughout 2012 despite the provincial cap speaks to this community’s character. We are asking you to continue this path, to commit to invest in building a healthier, more equitable community, and maintain full funding for the CSUMB and Discretionary Benefits.  This is a good investment in our community, and is, fundamentally, the right thing to do.

Finally, we ask you to join us this Friday at a “People’s Open House” at 12:30pm at 1770 King Street East.  That address may be familiar to many of you – it is the constituency office of John Milloy.  This Friday, folks from across the province, including members of CUPE, the Ontario Federation of Labour, and other local and provincial allies are joining Poverty Makes Us Sick and the Ontario Coalition Against the Poverty for an afternoon of music, food and celebration of community resistance to the cuts to the CSUMB and Discretionary Benefits.  We invite you all to be there and will be certainly happy to provide you with a platform to announce how Waterloo Regional Council will be joining this provincial mobilization. 

We look forward to seeing you all on the streets!

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