Anti-poverty activists say they are shocked the Ford government had contemplated cuts to the Ontario Child Benefit as part of efforts to slay the province’s $11.7 billion deficit.
A proposal to slice $500 from the benefit that pays up to $1,403 annually per child to the province’s poorest families was among a long list of cuts proposed in a leaked draft document prepared for cabinet in the lead-up to last month’s provincial budget.
“To even consider a reduction in the small, but important amount of support families receive from the Ontario Child Benefit is unfathomable,” said Laurel Rothman, a member of the steering committee for Campaign 2000, a coalition fighting to end child poverty.
“These are cheques to people living day to day, who struggle to pay for food, shelter and clothing, let alone medication, transit and child care,” she said. “People count on these cheques to survive.”
The Nov. 20 document, obtained by the Star this week, offered various cost-cutting scenarios that amounted to as much as $2 billion this year and added up to $11 billion by 2024. The child benefit cut was suggested as a way to find $600 million – and avoid deep cuts to programs supporting victims of human trafficking, women and children fleeing domestic violence and Indigenous children and youth.
As reported in the Star, the document warns many of the deepest cuts would seriously harm the health and well-being of Ontario’s most vulnerable residents, put the government at risk of legal action and increase costs in other areas such as health care.
Ultimately, cabinet settled instead on a $1 billion reduction to social services spending by 2021-22, according to the April budget. Social assistance rates, funding for developmental services and children’s aid societies remain unchanged. And there were no cuts to the Ontario Child Benefit.
But the document has shaken advocates.
“We’ve all been surprised by many of the things this government has done and contemplated,” Rothman said. “But the child benefit is the most shocking.”
The benefit is the only population-focused poverty-reduction initiative launched by the province in the last 25 years, noted Gary Bloch, a family doctor and member of Health Providers Against Poverty.
“To cut there would be a huge step backwards on poverty reduction efforts,” he said.
“The fact that any of these cuts were even on the table speaks to the kind of thinking that is happening in this government right now,” he added. “The idea they are seriously contemplating an approach to deficit reduction and austerity that places a huge burden on the most vulnerable people in Ontario is incredibly frightening to me.”
Bloch said he is most worried the government decided against the cuts for political rather than ideological reasons and that “we may see this play out just a little more slowly” over the next few years.
“I see this more as a window on what may be being talked about in the back rooms,” he added. “To me, this is a huge insight into what we should be most worried about from this government.”
In the legislature Thursday, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath wondered “how much more pain — how much more suffering — can families in need expect from this premier and his government?”
But Lisa MacLeod, minister of children, community and social services, accused the NDP of engaging in “fear-mongering” and “reckless rhetoric.”
“We were elected to get this province back on track after 15 years of reckless spending, waste and mismanagement so that we could protect what matters most, and that is children and youth, community and social services, poverty reduction, immigrants, newcomers, veterans,” she said.
“That is why we considered a number of different options that were provided to us and why we rejected those that hurt the most vulnerable.”
She reminded Horwath that since taking office, the government has increased social assistance rates by 1.5 per cent. It invested a “historic” $174.5 million to combat violence against women and it has spent “well over” $600 million on autism services.
“We were elected with a mandate to protect what matters most. We left no stone unturned. We looked at all of the options. We rejected most of those options, but this is what this ministry has done,” MacLeod said.
Laurie Monsebraaten is a Toronto-based reporter covering social justice. Follow her on Twitter: @lmonseb