Opinion: Ontario’s shockingly low welfare rates are failing families in Toronto

Maria Rio is Director of Development at the Stop Community Food Centre, a West Toronto non-profit organization that provides emergency food access services, community development programs and urban agriculture.

Right now in Toronto, too many families are forced to make the impossible choice between paying rent or buying food.

The 2021 Who’s Hungry report released by the Daily Bread Food Bank and North York Harvest found there were 1.45 million visits to food banks in Toronto in 2020 – the highest number on record. For the first time, new customers outnumbered existing customers, with a 61% increase over the previous year.

Toronto faces a poverty crisis with rising inflation, low welfare rates and unaffordable housing. We are headed in the wrong direction, with one in four struggling to make ends meet and no relief in sight.

I know firsthand the effects of the affordability crisis. I have used emergency food services in Toronto in the past. I lived in a refugee shelter when I arrived in Canada and suffered the multifaceted effects of poverty for many years: living in a basement with no air conditioning, struggling to pay for food and transportation , calculate how much I could spend each day until my next payslip.

I also know the important role that nonprofit organizations and emergency food access services play in keeping families afloat during difficult times. I worked in non-profit organizations for a decade and now work with the Stop. As more and more people run out of other “options” to pay their bills, like going into credit card debt or using predatory payday loans, they turn to emergency services like our meals walk-in and our food bank baskets. The ongoing economic crisis is driving an unprecedented, and still growing, demand for Stop’s emergency food access services.

Over the past two years, we have seen a 40% increase in cases at our food bank, each representing a household of one to nine people. In just one year, between March 2021 and March 2022, we have seen a 30% increase in the number of people using our food bank.

We know that our work responds to an immediate need. But to support a sustainable, long-term recovery from these crises, poverty must be addressed with the same sense of urgency as COVID-19 – and with sweeping government intervention and accountability.

While there is a lot that could be done, raising the incredibly low social assistance rates should be the highest priority for the Ontario government; they are well below the cost of living.

At current rates, living a dignified and independent life is impossible for those whose only income is the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) or Ontario Works (OW). We surveyed our users and found that 67% of them are on welfare. Of that number, 52% are on ODSP. A single ODSP recipient will receive $1,169 to cover basic needs this month, with only $497 allocated for housing costs.

I invite you to think about the last time you saw a $497 rental. Similarly, a single adult on Ontario Works will only receive $733 this month to cover all of their expenses. These are impossible amounts to survive, let alone thrive. Both ODSP and OW fall below the threshold of what Ontario’s Poverty Reduction Strategy considers severe poverty, which means that these forms of social assistance – which are meant to provide essential income to individuals to cover their basic needs – actually keep people poor.

Using data from the Daily Bread Food Bank, a report by the School of Public Policy at the University of Calgary shows the practical implications of legislative decisions on welfare rates and wages.

The researchers found that the use of essential services such as food banks demonstrates a direct correlation with increases in rent and an inverse correlation with increases in disability benefits and minimum wage.

Alarmingly, the researchers determined that “a $30 per month increase in rent would result in 73,776 additional food bank visits per year in Toronto and 375,512 additional visits across Ontario.” In other words, as basic costs such as rent and food increase and purchasing power declines, we will continue to see more of our neighbors resorting to the essential supports provided by organizations such as Stop.

The Stop can serve meals, provide access to food, referrals to local services and provide job training, but ultimately we cannot give our communities access to income that will enable them to buy their own groceries, pay the rent, keep up with inflation, save for retirement or support their families.

Through our services, we can address the symptoms but not the root causes of some of the defining issues in our society, such as income inequality, homelessness and food insecurity. Legislation is the only one capable of bringing about such changes. Without government intervention, the need for essential services will continue to grow – and I fear that we and other nonprofits will not be able to keep pace.

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