An Open Letter to John Milloy, MPP-Kitchener Centre

John Milloy, MPP Kitchener Centre April 2nd, 2012

1770 King Street East, Unit 6C
Kitchener, ON N2G 2P1

Dear John,

Here we are again. Over the past two years, Poverty Makes Us Sick and our colleagues in the grassroots anti-poverty community have met with you numerous times. Almost exactly one year ago today we finally said enough was enough and decided to engage in some more direct ‘outreach’ to you as part of a provincial Day of Action on Poverty. Now a year has passed, and not only have you failed to follow through on commitments made in those meetings but in your new role as Minister of Community and Social Services, you have continued to serve as a mouthpiece for your government’s austerity agenda and its attack on our community.

Your 2012 budget, released on Tuesday, serves to further undermine the rights and financial security of workers and creates more misery in the lives of poor Ontarians.
To remind you of some highlights:

  • Public services under attack as spending is reduced by $17.7 billion over the next 3 years
  • Wage freeze for public service workers and attack on their pensions
  • Delayed delivery of $100 Ontario Child Benefit increase to July 2013 and again by July 2014 (counter to your own stated commitment to child poverty reduction)
  • Social assistance rates to be frozen (in real terms a cut in income)
  • Elimination of ‘Community Start-up and Maintenance Allowance’ for those on OW/ODSP
  • Capping of all discretionary health benefits under OW/ODSP
  • Maintaining current tax rates for corporations

In a March 26th article published in The Record, you defended the freeze on social assistance in this budget as necessary to balance the books. Instead of restoring corporate tax rates to levels consistent with other jurisdictions in G8 countries (increasing revenue by over $15 billion), your ‘poverty reduction government’ chose instead to focus on the very services that Ontarians rely on to protect them from the worst consequences of these difficult economic times. This budget demonstrates that this government is not serious about real financial responsibility – it has decided to further an agenda that makes poor and middle-income Ontarians pay for the greed of elites that have created the financial crisis we find ourselves in.

Then you claim that, unlike the Harris government, “we are not going to balance the budget on the backs of the poor”. And you know, you are right. No matter how much you slash the benefits and programs aimed at those in our community already struggling to survive in deep poverty, you cannot reach a balanced budget from those cuts. It is estimated that, in freezing social assistance rates and cutting programs aimed at poor Ontarians, you will save about $90 million. The fact is, that under your government’s leadership, 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 your government’s tenure began). Well, John, as the saying goes, you can’t get blood from a stone – and these policies indeed have blood on them.

Ultimately, this is a revenue problem, not a spending problem and this budget continues down the wrong path. Investing in poor people is the best investment a government can make. Poor people spend their money – they invest in their local communities. This is basic economics, not rocket science, and you have enough high paid economists at $1500 a day who also know this. They just don’t care. This is a budget rooted in the ideology of austerity– one that sees poor communities as disposable, invisible and irrelevant.

John, you have spent years building your reputation as a public servant that ‘really listens’. You tell us that your door is always open to hear stories of the impact of government policy on real lives. Well, we say ‘enough listening’. As the Minister of Community and Social Services it is your job and your responsibility to protect the interests of all your constituents. We are not a photo op. As the slogan goes, ‘We are hungry and we are angry and we are not going away’.

Under your watch as a member of cabinet, the Special Diet program was cut. Only through enormous public pressure was a version of it maintained and transferred to the Ministry of Health (you really dodged a bullet there – just in time for you to take over the Community Services portfolio without that headache). Many people who had relied on this vital supplement have been cut off and people living in deep poverty are again forced to choose between rent and the healthy food they need to maintain their basic well-being. Instead of recognizing the social and financial logic of this investment in health promotion, your government chose to file a complaint and have a key provincial anti-poverty advocate, Dr. Wong, investigated for medical fraud when he tried to protect poor Ontarians from your neglect and get them access to the healthy food that is preventative medicine.

Your ‘poverty reduction government’ claims to be different than the Harris regime. However, we are simply not seeing evidence to back up those claims. First, you scaled back commitments to all Ontarians to reduce global poverty and decide that child poverty reduction (not elimination, mind you) is the goal. Now, in this budget, you renege on even that promise as you attack public sector workers, freeze social assistance rates for families and delay implementation of the Child Tax Benefit. At the same time, you fund the unnecessary and costly SARC commission to once again bide time instead of making real investments in the social assistance infrastructure and hire TD Banker Don Drummond to recommend cuts and ‘spending efficiencies’ in public services, recommendations that would devastate our public services on a scale that Harris could only imagine.

You say you’ve made a decision as a government not to cut OW and ODSP rates and that somehow that demonstrates your commitment to poverty reduction. Just to remind you that inflation continues, particularly on those items likely basic necessities – housing, food, energy. This means that a freeze in assistance is indeed a cut. We are not fooled by the fancy rhetoric. You and your government have demonstrated since you took power that addressing poverty is simply not a priority. You can only use the ghost of the Harris era so long before it sounds hollow – we are way past that time.

You say that the SARC report, to be released in June, may offer ‘spending efficiencies’ to improve the lives of Ontarians living on OW/ODSP. You recognize that “our social policy system is in drastic need of reform”. However, the mandate you gave Lankin and Sheikh does not allow for that reform in a way that can protect the rights and interests of those whose needs it claims to address. As our allies in the Alliance Against Poverty have rightfully noted, “in its refusal to deal with the politico-economic environment of corporate-driven austerity, union-bashing, social service cutbacks, privatization of services, wealth disparity and the ignoring of the need for tax increases and tax fairness, the SARC report pit against each other civil servant employees, temp workers, immigrants, minimum wage labourers, ODSP/OW recipients, First Nations people, etc., forcing them to fight over a meager piece of the public-spending pie.”

We are putting you on notice, Mr. Milloy. We are done educating you about the realities of poverty. We are no longer patient. We no longer have faith in the reputation you have so comfortably rested on for years. It’s time for action. As our allies in AAP stated clearly to the SARC Commissioners, and we echo to you today, ‘we call on you to join us, or to step aside’. We wanted you as an ally and took you at your word that you have the needs of the poor in your heart. But actions are all that people can be judged on. Your actions speak to a willful disregard of those in your own community most in need of real justice – instead your actions suggest that you are committed to carrying forward this anti-poor austerity agenda, under a ‘kinder, gentler’ regime, and with a smile. The result is the same. The poor continue to suffer, while the rich continue to thrive.

Our minimum demands remain those of the Raise the Rates Campaign:

WE DEMAND an immediate increase in OW and ODSP rates to bring them back to pre-Harris levels. 55% NOW– raise the rates to where people can live with health and dignity!

WE DEMAND the minimum wage freeze be lifted immediately and that minimum wage be increased to a living wage for everyone in Ontario.

WE DEMAND the full restoration of the Special Diet to a benefit of up to $250 for food and complete reversal of all intrusive measures.

We wish we felt more confident that this letter would find you ready to demonstrate the courage and leadership we have been waiting for. There was much hope when you took over this portfolio that we might see some meaningful shift in policy. It is time to live up to the reputation that you claim and become a real champion for poor Ontarians. We look forward to seeing you step up but we’re not going to wait. This is a time for action – if the government doesn’t act …. the people will.

Sincerely,

Poverty Makes Us Sick

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