When I spoke to Region of Waterloo Council on December 5 about my proposal for a Smart on Crime Foundation, I was part of a packed Council Chambers where the vast majority were concerned about the impact of provincial changes to social assistance. I was particularly moved by the lived experiences of members of ALIV(e) about how discretionary benefits and community startup and maintenance benefit (CSUMB) and had made an impact upon their lives and how important these funds would be to others in a similar situation.
Shortly afterwards, I had a chance to speak with Community & Social Services Minister John Milloy and told him I was having trouble defending the changes given their predicted impact.
Those two events helped me to start getting my head around the issues involved.
Region of Waterloo has a responsibility to those living in poverty
Before I had a chance to share my perspectives, Regional Chair Ken Seiling proposed a levy of about $17 per household to have the Region of Waterloo cover the difference in funding due to changes on the provincial level. I was surprised at first but the more I thought about it the more sense that it made. I fully support Chair Seiling’s proposal. Here’s why:
- The cut to discretionary benefits is a province-wide cut but it does not affect all areas of the province equally. Essentially, the province had been helping to pay a significant portion of the costs of local decisions related to discretionary benefits. Waterloo Region was spending about 2 1/2 times per case than the provincial average of $10 per case. The provincial average meant that many communities including Toronto were spending less than an average of $10 per case on discretionary benefits. The cut levels the funding equally across the province. Waterloo Region is feeling the impact more because we were able to afford the local portion of funding discretionary benefits–but getting more than our fair share of provincial funds as a result. Since the Region of Waterloo made local decisions that increased spending on discretionary benefits, it has a responsibility to do what it can to pick up the difference between the provincial average and our local funding.
- Two years ago, I supported a local movement called Poverty Free Waterloo Region. The provincial government had kept its promise to upload social assistance costs that had been downloaded to municipalities by the Harris PC government. That meant that local property taxes were no longer needed to fund social assistance. Poverty Free Waterloo Region wanted the region to invest its savings to address poverty. Others wanted the Region to decrease taxes. I suggested a balanced approach where most of the funds would address issues faced by people living in poverty but that the overall budget should not see an increase. Regional Council decided to use those funds both last year and two years ago for other projects (including light rail transit) and have modest tax increase. Regional Council must now do what it chose not to do previously and invest to help people living in poverty.
- The “cut” to CSUMB may mean less funding available for individuals with immediate needs but it is not a cut to municipalities. The 50% cut is really a transfer to a new housing program that combines this funding with that of 5 other programs. Funding for this new program goes to municipalities including the Region of Waterloo to fund longer term housing solutions than is currently provided by the status quo. I am concerned about the short term pain that could be experienced and I hope that the Region of Waterloo’s investment in people living in poverty can ease the transition. At the same time, we can not preserve the status quo and make substantive changes that provide long term solutions to help people to escape poverty, so I like that the provincial government is willing to make the difficult choices necessary for long term change. I look forward to what will be done locally to make that happen.
Taken together, Regional Chair Seilings proposed levy is one that all Regional Councillors should support because it fulfills the Region’s responsibility to people living in poverty and relates directly to past decisions that affected them–not because of the most recent provincial decisions.
Post script Dec. 28
My greatest concern has been to people who risked suffering because of decisions by the provincial and regional government. Thankfully as I wrote this post, John Milloy announced funding to assist the transition to the changes to CSUMB. I suspect that this decision is because municipalities have not yet made concrete plans for the new homeless prevention program. I also suspect that as we near the end of the fiscal year his ministry identified where that money could be found. For Waterloo Region, that means about $1.5 million.
I plan to write one or two additional posts on the Region of Waterloo’s budget including one about requests to increase the police budget and to sustain the successful gang prevention program know as InReach.