Poverty costs the Ontario government — and ultimately all of us — as much as $33 billion a year, according to a new report by Ontario food banks.
This is not only socially irresponsible, but economically unsound, argues the analysis being released Tuesday by Feed Ontario, formerly known as the Ontario Association of Food Banks.
“The report shows us that maintaining people in poverty is expensive — and that proven poverty reduction investments not only benefit our communities, but carry significant cost savings and revenue opportunities for the provincial government as well,” says board chair Michael Maidment.
The report, which links poverty to lost productivity and increased provincial spending on health care and criminal justice, says the Ford government’s focus on deficit reduction through decreased spending on social programs may be counter-productive.
“When (a government) shrinks expenditures, or makes cuts, it can actually deprive the economy of its ability to grow,” the report says.
Tuesday’s report is an update of Feed Ontario’s first estimate in 2008 that calculated the annual cost of poverty at $38 billion. But that estimate can’t be compared to the current analysis because the methodology no longer includes the cost of inter-generational poverty, Maidment says.
While child poverty has decreased since the introduction of the Ontario Child Benefit in 2008, poverty rates among single adults and couples without children has increased, the report shows. And these adults are getting poorer, a phenomenon echoed in food bank use across the province.
“Not only is a single person more likely to require the support of a food bank throughout the year, they are more likely to visit more often,” Maidment says.
Sylvie, 56, a former baker and cake decorator is among the province’s growing number of singles who rely on food banks.
“Mental burn-out” and extreme anxiety forced the Toronto woman to quit her job 12 years ago and rely on Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) benefits.
Until about a year ago, she was able to supplement those meagre monthly benefits of just over $1,100 through a string of part-time jobs that helped her pay rent and TTC fare.
But when Sylvie’s most recent job handing out free newspapers outside subway stations disappeared, she could no longer afford to both eat and pay her monthly rent of about $1,000.
“I very much appreciate ODSP, but the cost of my rent just eats up everything, so I depend on the food bank to stretch my dollars,” says Sylvie, who did not want her full name published because she is still looking for part-time work and fears the stigma of mental health.
Since she has no post-secondary education and few marketable skills apart from baking — a job she can no longer do, due to her disability — her prospects are grim, she says.
And with no money for TTC to attend even free events, Sylvie says she is “basically a shut-in” apart from her weekly visits to the food bank, a situation that is not good for her mental health.
About 1.57 million Ontarians live in poverty, including 382,000 children, based on the Low Income Measure of LIM, after taxes. (By that measure, a single person with an annual income of less than about $23,500 and a couple or single person with one child living on less than $33,000 would be considered poor, in 2017.)
Child poverty in Ontario dropped by 24 per cent between 2012 and 2015, while the number of children living in deep poverty dropped by 37 per cent.
By contrast, the poverty rate of singles and families without children jumped by 24 per cent over the same period, the report notes.
Of more than 227,000 Ontario households that used food banks in 2018, more than half were made up of single people, an increase of 45 per cent in the last decade, according to the report.
Queen’s Park should build on the success of the Ontario Child Benefit by introducing similar financial support to singles and families without children struggling to escape poverty, the report recommends.
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“What we are talking about is a basic income for everyone,” says Maidment, who runs the Ottawa Food Bank.
“We’ve heard the economic argument being made in Ontario that programs like the basic income are too expensive to implement,” he says, referring to the province’s ill-fated pilot project that was studying the impact of unconditional monthly cash transfers to 4,000 low-income individuals and couples.
“What we are saying with this report is, let’s look at what the costs are. Let’s look at the lost (tax) revenue. Let’s look at the annual cost to the health care and criminal justice systems.”