How Ontario Can Reduce Poverty and Pollution

Reposted in full from the Huffington Post,

Balancing budgets are about making tough choices.

These choices are important. They define who we are, and the kind of province we want.

Last week’s much anticipated report on reforming social assistance programs — “Brighter Prospects: Transforming Social Assistance in Ontario” — presents an opportunity for Ontario to make choices that will define our province.

Commissioners Frances Lankin and Munir Sheikh make a compelling case that Ontario’s welfare system is broken. They have provided a comprehensive, long-term and affordable plan to fix it.

This plan proposes reducing bureaucracy and removing penalties for working, while increasing assistance for those in need. The plan’s recommendations reduce complexity, increase fairness and strengthen accountability.

Unfortunately, the prospects for making these important reforms don’t look bright at the moment.

Firstly, the report has not received the public hearing it deserves because the Ontario Legislature is closed for business. Reducing poverty is another casualty of Premier McGuinty’s decision to prorogue parliament.

Secondly, the Minister of Community and Social Services made it clear that the Liberal government will not fund the review’s recommendations. He cites Ontario’s record budget deficit.

Looking at the numbers, the report calls for a 0.3 per cent increase in spending. That’s $340 million per year to transform social assistance from a program that perpetuates poverty into a strategy that reduces it.

Balancing the province’s budget must be a top priority. With a record deficit, finding $340 million means making choices.

But in a case of misguided priorities, the Liberals have chosen to spend $1 billion per year to lower the cost of pollution. The 10 per cent reduction on electricity bills is a subsidy that primarily benefits the wealthy who use the most electricity.

We could eliminate that $1 billion subsidy, fix our broken welfare system and still have an additional $650 million per year to fight the deficit.

The opposition NDP and Conservatives want to go further. They have teamed up to call for an additional $350 million price reduction on pollution by taking the HST off home heating fuels. It’s an interesting coincidence that this is how much it will cost to fix welfare.

The choice is clear. Ontario has the money to provide dignity to our most vulnerable citizens. Yet the parties at Queen’s Park have made the political calculation that subsidizing pollution, primarily to benefit the wealthy, is more important than fixing a broken welfare system.

We need political leadership to put good long-term public policy ahead of short-term political expediency.

Let’s choose to help those with the least amount of political power and the most need, instead of those with the most political power and least amount of need.

This is a choice that will make us all richer.

Mike Schreiner