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Government cuts key to poverty problem: panelists

By Mike Pearson, News staff

Cuts to immigrant health, stagnant social assistance rates and corporate tax cuts have done little to advance Hamilton’s poverty issues, speakers told a community forum on poverty last week.

Tom Cooper, director of Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction, credited the federal Conservatives for establishing the guaranteed income supplement for seniors, but criticized recent cuts to refugee health. Changes announced earlier this year eliminated health coverage for many refugees awaiting landed immigrant status.

In Hamilton, Cooper said 96,000 people live below the annual low-income cut-off of $21,000, and 50 per cent of recent immigrants live in poverty.

Cooper said cuts to social assistance made by the provincial Tories in the mid-1990s have not been restored by the current Liberal government, resulting in higher demand for food banks. He estimated that 75 per cent of Hamilton’s food bank users rely on social assistance.

“It’s a choice that governments have made,” said Cooper, who has long advocated for social assistance reform.

Cooper said the province should set social assistance rates based upon the funding people actually need to survive. He said a single person in Hamilton cannot afford housing and nutritious food on a monthly Ontario Works benefit of $599.

“By keeping people in poverty and not providing them with opportunities, we’re a lot worse off,” said Cooper.

Along with its reluctance to improve social assistance rates, the provincial Liberals’ cuts to discretionary health benefits have also hurt the poor, Cooper said. As part of its 2012 austerity budget, the Liberals cut discretionary health benefits as well as the community start-up and maintenance program which provided up to $799 every two years for moving costs or the expense of first and last month’s rent. Cooper said the benefit was especially useful for women fleeing from domestic violence.

Dr. Donald Reid, professor emeritus, school of environmental design and rural development at the University of Guelph, said poverty should be viewed as a political, economic and structural problem.

“Poverty isn’t just a matter of income,” said Reid. “Getting people off social assistance isn’t eradicating poverty.”

Reid said governments must develop a more accurate image of poverty, one that dispels the myth of laziness among those collecting social assistance. Years of corporate tax cuts have failed to reduce the gap between rich and poor, a divide which Reid said is continuing to increase.

“Is it acceptable to Canadians to have people who are living with virtually nothing?” Reid said.

Social workers should be viewed not as parole officers, but as lifestyle coaches who can work with clients to help them escape poverty, said Reid.

After examining poverty in Canada for close to 50 years, Reid spoke about the limitations of capitalism and said governments should strive to re-define the meaning of work. Capitalism and its emphasis on consumption is rapidly using up natural resources and threatening the environment. Instead of examining poverty in terms of economic policy, Reid said governments should focus on developmental policy.

The Sept. 27 poverty forum was organized by the Ancaster-Dundas-Flamborough-Westdale federal Liberal riding association at the Dundas public library.

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