The Hamilton Spectator

Rising cost of food leaves social assistance recipients in poverty

Haldimand-Norfolk health board joins call for rate hike

- J.P. ANTONACCI LOCAL JOURNALISM INITIATIVE REPORTER J.P. ANTONACCI’S REPORTING IS FUNDED BY THE CANADIAN GOVERNMENT THROUGH ITS LOCAL JOURNALISM INITIATIVE. JPANTONACC­I@THESPEC.COM

Ontarians receiving social assistance already live below the poverty line and the rising cost of food is making matters worse.

That stark reality prompted Haldimand-Norfolk’s board of health to join anti-poverty groups in urging the Ford government to raise social assistance rates.

The Ontario Works (OW) benefit for unemployed low-income Ontarians has been frozen at $733 per month since 2018.

And while Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) payments increased by 6.5 per cent in July after the province indexed that benefit to inflation, advocates say the monthly stipend of $1,308 still falls short.

“For many, incomes are not enough to cover even basic expenses,” public health dietician Laura Goyette told the board of health last week.

“Inflation in 2022 reached a 40-year high, so this is obviously a pressing issue.”

As underscore­d by the United Way in that organizati­on’s call for higher social assistance rates, the poverty line in Ontario for a single person is $2,302 per month, based on the federal Market Basket Measuremen­t.

The health unit found that after paying rent and buying the cheapest groceries available, Haldimand-Norfolk residents on ODSP have less than $100 left over to cover utilities, phone and internet, transporta­tion, child care and hygiene items.

Local Ontario Works recipients have the “most dire” situation, Goyette said, as they are in the hole by nearly $150 before factoring in any of those expenses.

And those numbers might be worse still, as the health unit calculates rent as though recipients already live in rent-controlled buildings. Rent would be “much higher” for people setting out to find an apartment today, Goyette said.

This latest call for higher social assistance rates comes as food insecurity is rising in Haldimand-Norfolk, where one in six households have “inadequate or insecure access to food due to financial constraint­s,” Goyette said.

Based on a survey of local grocery stores last May, the health unit found the monthly cost for a family of four to eat a healthy diet is $1,222.43, up 5.5 per cent from 2022.

For a middle-income family, that represents about 12 per cent of monthly spending. But that same family with one fulltime worker making minimum wage spends 27 per cent of income on food, while an Ontario Works recipient devotes almost half their stipend to groceries.

Not eating enough healthy food risks a raft of physical and mental-health problems that tax the health-care system, Goyette said.

“Food insecurity is not a food issue. There is enough food,” she said. “It’s truly rooted in income.”

That is a sentiment shared by grassroots anti-poverty group RISE Norfolk, whose members have petitioned the Ford government to double ODSP and OW rates.

“We’ve been telling them for a while that it wasn’t enough,” RISE chair Tamra Smith told The Spectator, saying it is “unfair” that social assistance recipients make less than the $2,000 per month the federal government deemed essential to live during COVID-19 pandemic.

Current ODSP and OW rates are “a far cry from that,” Smith said.

Haldimand-Norfolk MPP Bobbi Ann Brady made tying ODSP to inflation part of her platform in the 2022 election.

“People are there through no fault of their own, and we have to do better for them,” Brady told The Spectator in an interview.

A self-described “fiscal conservati­ve,” Brady said she “strongly supports” getting more money into the hands of people on disability assistance.

“This is a situation where we know if we put more money into ODSP, their lives would be better,” Brady said.

“They would eat better, get better health care and stay out of our hospitals, and it would save us money in the long run.”

Brady would also like to see ODSP recipients who want to work part-time not have their benefits correspond­ingly “clawed back,” which she considers a disincenti­ve to work.

To coincide with indexing ODSP to inflation — which the province touted as the largest increase in decades — the Ford government also quadrupled the earnings exemption (how much recipients can earn before their benefits are reduced) to $1,000 each month.

“It’s very depressing that we do have, in this day and age, individual­s struggling with food insecurity,” Coun. Kim Huffman told the board of health.

“It’s not that we don’t have food, it’s that poverty increases food insecurity significan­tly.”

The board voted to send a letter to the province applauding the move to raise ODSP rates and asking that Ontario Works payouts also be linked to inflation to “ensure that everyone receiving social assistance could afford their basic needs.”

Smith, who started collecting ODSP after a car accident left her unable to work, says this issue should be of concern to all Ontarians, not just those on social assistance.

“One accident or loss of job and they’re in the same position as the rest of us,” she said.

 ?? SPECTATOR FILE PHOTO ?? Tamra Smith of Norfolk RISE wants the province to double social assistance rates.
SPECTATOR FILE PHOTO Tamra Smith of Norfolk RISE wants the province to double social assistance rates.
 ?? SPECTATOR FILE PHOTO ?? Coun. Kim Huffman called the food issue “depressing.”
SPECTATOR FILE PHOTO Coun. Kim Huffman called the food issue “depressing.”

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