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Politics of the poor

EDITORIAL

So, Hamilton politicians last week agreed to pay for the discretionary benefits to Ontario Works and Ontario Disability Support Program clients during the first six months of 2013.

This follows councillors reluctantly agreeing to also pay for the Consolidated Homelessness Prevention Program starting next year, after the province told municipalities over the last six months that it was either slashing funding to the social programs, or in some cases turning off the cash spigots altogether.

Faced with the reality of vulnerable people living on the margins of Hamilton society potentially being denied proper social service programs, politicians have buckled under an Ontario government decision to basically balance its $14.8-billion deficit on the backs of the most helpless people in society.

The trickle down cutbacks have forced some fiscal conservatives to propose raising Hamilton’s property taxes by a percentage point to cover the additional cost the provincial government has burdened the municipality. It means the city has paid about $1.8 million this year, and is facing spending about $3.7 million in 2013. The CHPP program is expected to cost the city around $7 million for 2013.

This draconian financial shell game harkens back to a more rambunctious time when former Progressive Conservative Premier Mike Harris made no secret of his desire to slash and burn the province’s social service programs in an effort to close some unseen fiscal problem, forcing municipalities such as Hamilton, to somehow find the financial resources to keep those social services available for the most vulnerable people. The legacy of those Harris cuts remain embedded in Hamilton’s finances today, as Ward 4 councillor Sam Merulla keeps reminding the public.

But the Liberals are doing the same thing, albeit with a pleasant smile. Instead of bragging, they are attacking the low-income population for the sake of fiscal prudence. The Liberals quietly announced to Ontario’s municipalities that funding for homelessness, women’s shelters and such programs as adult day care, funerals, dental and prosthetic devices would end this year. Municipalities were left scrambling to find the money to keep these programs. Without them, say social service activists, people will die, or at least, be put at a health and safety risk.

Liberals have responded by saying that they have uploaded a number of those services that Harris downloaded from municipalities responsibly. From those savings, Liberals say, municipalities can pay the cost of those extra services.

It’s a typical bureaucratic response to a very human situation. And because of Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty’s decision to prorogue Ontario’s Legislature, municipalities have nowhere to go to voice their anger at what they consider the Liberal’s failure to protect their citizens.

For practical and moral reasons, local councillors are obligated to keep social service programs operational or face an alternative that would be dire. Their options are also limited, especially when it comes to raising revenue to pay for the programs. Even if the idea of a temporary tax increase didn’t go anywhere now, it may be in play for next year, depending on how the Liberal leadership race ends and if there is another provincial election.

No wonder the public remains cynical about the political system. This type of financial brinksmanship over the lives of Ontario’s most vulnerable people is unnecessary. But in the world of political gamesmanship, shifting the blame to another level of government and taking credt for any success remains as true today as ever.

And that is a pity for people who depend daily on the meagre rations of help they receive.

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