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Critique of 2014 Regional Budget

On January 7, 2014, Alliance Against Poverty presented their critique of the Waterloo Region Budget. You can read the text below and you can watch the presentation here (AAP is the first presentation):

AAP--7 Jan 2014 Presentation to Region of Waterloo

Thank you very much for this opportunity to comment on the Regional Budget. I’m Richard Walsh, Professor of Psychology, at a local university. I’m also a founding member of the Alliance Against Poverty, known as AAP. This local grassroots group, which has made previous presentations to Council, engages in political action locally and provincially to eradicate poverty. We do not seek or accept any form of government funding. By the way, to save trees we’ll email you the text of this presentation.

In November and December you heard heartfelt and intelligent pleas from many community groups about the proposed Budget. One group urged you not to chop food-assistance, for example, another not to slash subsidies for child care. AAP echoes these voices. And we also support three recommendations from community groups about Discretionary Benefits, but add specific points as follows: #1 Top up the leftover $400,000 allocated for Discretionary Benefits last year by a new $600,000, so that $1million is available for 2014 as it was in 2013. #2 Make the eligibility criteria for Discretionary Benefits clear to agencies and clients, and in 2015 expand those criteria so as to include more people, because all indications are that poverty is increasing in this Region. #3 Track how many applications for Discretionary Benefits are denied.

Knowing the number of denied requests would enable staff to assess the needs of the poor more accurately.

Now, we’re aware that the Region has instituted some relatively progressive policies, such as: --- providing a wide range of food assistance, --- helping people with last month's rent and prevention of eviction, even after the province cancelled the Community Start-Up fund, --- supporting the Bed-Bug Aid programme and the Ontario Renovates programme for low-income homeowners, --- building and staffing the Supportive Housing of Waterloo apartment building on Erb Street West, known as SHOW. All these measures do help to mitigate some of the worst terrors of being poor. But all of them should be expanded.

Consider local transit. The Region's commitment to healthier transit options for our present and future population is very important. However, while we realize that sensible transit costs a lot of money, Grand River Transit's business-plan calls for recovering ever more of its operating costs from the fare box. That option might look fine to people who live comfortably, but the poorest among us can't afford an annual 10% increase in the cost of bus tickets and passes, and subsidized bus-passes are in very short supply. After all, people living on social assistance receive extremely low payments that increase only 1% annually. And for the working poor, the minimum wage has been frozen for four years, when it should be $14 an hour.

We propose instead that Council instruct Grand River Transit to include in its new business-plan free bus-passes for individuals receiving Ontario Works and subsidized passes for individuals receiving ODSP. In addition, GRT should greatly broaden subsidized passes, as some individuals who are not on ODSP also need subsidies for bus fare. In these ways, improvements to our transit system can be fair to everyone. Also, Council should tell GRT to include in its new business-plan this proposed programme within the budget allocated to it rather than Council taking transit subsidies out of the funds for Discretionary Benefits, which the poor sorely need for food and housing.

AAP also urges Council to use development charges to stimulate the creation of affordable housing units, especially along the LRT route. That's where people who are dependent on transit need to live. Improved transit won't help lower-income people the way it should, if they can't afford to live near it. Both affordable housing and affordable public transit are essential to eliminate poverty.

A major issue for the poor is the chronic and growing lack of both affordable and supportive housing. It's heartbreaking to see people who don't have the ability presently to fend for themselves living on the street or bouncing from rooming house to rooming house. The 30 or 40 people who live in the one SHOW apartment block now enjoy a new lease on life. But as Chair Seiling has said, roughly 1500 people in the Region require supportive housing; they need a community around them and mentoring to help them remain housed in safety and security. One SHOW building, therefore, is just a start. Moreover, according to the Region’s 2012 report, “Homelessness to Housing Stability,” the number of families with children using emergency shelters increased by 300% from 2008 to 2012. In addition, although more than 500 affordable housing units were created in the Region between 2008 and this past October, 3100 people remain on the waiting list for affordable housing, and families can remain on the waiting list for up to 6 years, according to a report in the Cambridge Times. Then consider the coming demographic wave of senior citizens who might need affordable housing over the next decade or so. Given the scope of housing issues and how long it takes to plan and build affordable housing, we urge you to start budgeting for it now.

There’s another practical matter concerning housing. Under the Region’s current policy, individuals are eligible to receive last month's rent in advance only if they are discharged from a shelter, psychiatric ward, or jail. In effect, individuals must be institutionalized before receiving last month's rent to move into an apartment. In our view, this policy obstructs finding affordable and safe housing;so, the criteria for obtaining last month’s rent should be expanded to enable people to find suitable housing.

The poor endure even more indignities. In this battered economy, good jobs are still being lost, and if a person can get a new job, it's unlikely to offer predictable hours, a living wage, benefits, and a pension plan. Worse, the line-ups at the soup kitchen and the churches where meals are served seem to be twice as long as they were just a few months ago. In short, people are becoming poorer, faster than your commendable efforts to help them, and the Region is falling behind in services to the poor, even if you don't cut any programmes. Actually, of all Canadian provinces and territories, Ontario shows the greatest rise in the gap between the rich and poor and has the worst record on creating affordable housing. Yet, as the Public Health Unit suggested in its “Income Gap Report” of July 2013, wealth disparity might be increasing more in this Region than anywhere else in Ontario. And the Region already has over 50,000 people who live below the poverty-line.

So, members of Council, budget for the poor. At the very least, pledge to maintain services this year at last year's level, then expand all supports for the poor in future years. If something must be cut in the Region's budget, don't nickel-and-dime the poor for whom every nickel and dime counts, literally. Instead, target the bloated budget for police services and all wasteful spending.

Now, we recognize that, to some degree, your budgetary hands are tied by “outdated provincial rules,” as a recent editorial in The Record put it. On the one hand, you must provide for major needs with property taxes, user fees, and unpredictable provincial contributions as revenue, while on the other hand, provincial constraints “limit [your] ability to act meaningfully,” again as The Record noted.

But Waterloo Region has led the way before, such as when you took a stand against casinos and Premier Wynne supported you. You can do it again. Maintain and expand the services that the poorest among us need now and in the future: For starters, improved discretionary benefits, free and subsidized transit fares, and affordable and supportive housing.

Thank you.