After the election: Poverty must be a priority for our next government
Two days to go until the provincial election in Ontario, and we’re still scratching our heads. Waiting for the shoe to drop. When will someone, anyone, start talking about the crisis facing our province?
Nearly a million people in Ontario received social assistance in 2019-2020, before the onset of the pandemic. Almost 600,000 households don’t have adequate access to food because they can’t afford it. One third of renters live in an unsuitable, inadequate, or unaffordable home. Canada-wide, nearly half the population is living paycheque to paycheque.
Poverty and income insecurity are not new. They did not come about because of Covid or the war in Ukraine, though these have temporarily drawn public attention to some of the structural problems with our labour market and our food and energy systems. Poverty was here in Ontario long before, not the result of a single catastrophe but rather of a series of choices about how Ontarians want to live together and the social systems to support it.
And yet, none of the parties vying to be our next government have talked about dismantling poverty in any meaningful way. Why?
It could be that parties and candidates prefer to focus on issues that are easy to talk about, with simple-sounding solutions – after all, “an election is no time to discuss serious issues.” For example, the housing crisis has finally caught some much-needed public attention, but, by and large, it has focused on the easiest-to-understand fix: let commercial developers build more.
It could be that parties don’t think their voting base includes people living in poverty. Maybe this is why the cost of living has been a big topic of discussion, but almost nothing has been said about the people who couldn’t pay for basic necessities before inflation made “affordability” a middle class issue.
Or it could be that parties are not used to thinking about people living in poverty as people who count. Perhaps they are too used to thinking about poverty as a result of individual bad choices, rather than as the result of the failure of our social systems to protect people against poverty. Too used to thinking about poverty as an unfortunate circumstance, rather than as a violation of our basic human right to an adequate standard of living.
It’s not that parties have had nothing to say about poverty or social assistance. But few of them have ideas that would do more than scratch the surface of the problem. They might offer some small relief, but mostly they address the symptoms of poverty. They won’t make poverty go away. They won’t address the decades of public policy, and the collective choices we made, which have resulted in systems that create and trap people in poverty.
To really make meaningful progress, we need to confront the values that our social systems are built on and to re-make those systems so that they protect people from the indignity of poverty. We need a new goal: to ensure that every person can have an adequate standard of living. We need a new approach: a human rights approach that puts people at the centre and holds our government responsible for protecting our right to a life with dignity.
But first, we need our political leaders to acknowledge that poverty is a crisis in this province. And that it is our government’s duty to solve it.
In a few short days, we’ll learn who will form the next government of Ontario. Whoever it is, remember: just because they didn’t talk about poverty during their campaign doesn’t mean they aren’t responsible for it.