by Sarah Lamble and John Elis
More than 50 people gathered outside the local welfare office on Friday, June 11, 2004 for a public 'speak out' to raise the social assistance rates in Ontario.
Organized by the Peterborough Coalition Against Poverty (PCAP), along with other anti-poverty groups, the event is part of a province-wide campaign calling for a 40 percent raise in the welfare rates and a cost-of-living increase for the Ontario Disability Support Program.
After sharing lunch together outside the front steps of the welfare office, individuals on social assistance spoke publicly about what it is like to try to survive on the current rates. Many described gruelling choices between food and rent, and outlined numerous daily hardships created by lack of income.
PCAP member Sharon Courts, spoke about the difficulties of trying to buy basic necessities on such a limited income. "Often you are forced choose between buying a roll of toilet paper and a bag of milk" she said.
Many people on social assistance declined to speak, due to fear and intimidation because of the possible backlash from the welfare system. Instead, some individuals wrote statements that they asked others to read on their behalf.
But PCAP members stated firmly that that there is no shame in being on social assistance. "Being on social assistance isn't a sign that you've failed the system, but that the system has failed you," said one PCAP organizer, receiving a strong applause from the crowd. "The real shame belongs to those who perpetuate a system that creates and maintains inequality and indignity and allows people to live in poverty - despite enormous wealth in this province and this country."
PCAP members described the current levels of social assistance as woefully inadequate. Noting the provincial government's recent decision to increase the rates by three percent, PCAP members called this increase 'spare change, not real change.' This paltry increase, the first in 11 years, will amount to a mere $15.60 per month for a single person receiving a maximum monthly allowance of $520.00 from Ontario Works. This increase doesn't even come close to meeting basic needs.
In Peterborough where the average rent for a bachelor apartment is $454 per month, a single person on social assistance is now left with less than $82 per month to cover food, utilities, transportation and clothing. As a result, thousands of people in Ontario have been legislated to live in dangerous levels of poverty.
Calling for a 40 percent increase is not really an increase at all, stated one PCAP member. "Forty percent merely compensates for the 21.7 percent welfare cuts in 1995 and accounts for costs-of-living increases. So really, a 40 percent raise will simply restore the rates to the equivalent of the pre-1995 levels."
The Peterborough event occurred as part of a province-wide campaign, by the Common Front--a coalition of grassroots anti-poverty organizations. Similar events took place this week at welfare offices in Toronto, Belleville, Sudbury, Guelph, Ottawa and Kingston. The Peterborough event was supported by the Older Women's Network, the Peterborough Living-Wage, Living-Income Coalition and the Peterborough Coalition for Social Justice.