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FORUM: Living on welfare is not healthy (Oct. 2022)

October 19th, 2022 · No Comments

MPP subsists on welfare-funded diet

By Jessica Bell

Last month, I went on a “welfare diet” and lived on a grocery budget of $47.60 a week for two weeks to pressure the Ford government to double social assistance rates. 

I went on a “welfare diet” and lived on a grocery budget of $47.60 a week for two weeks to pressure the Ford government to double social assistance rates.

—MPP Jessica Bell

About 900,000 Ontarians live on social assistance. If the person qualifies for Ontario Works, they receive $733 a month for a single person, and if they qualify for Ontario Disability Support Payments, they get $1227 a month. These meager payments keep people in poverty. 

In my first week, I bought the cheapest food I could find—potatoes, lentils, kidney beans, oats, rice, milk and butter. In the second week, I augmented my meals with eggs, bread, peas, and hot sauce. This diet was not sustainable or healthy. I was often hungry. I experienced sugar withdrawal, and I dreamt of eating lettuce and apples. 

The experience was humbling. I learned a lot. People contacted me to describe how difficult, humiliating, and stressful it was to be poor. They spoke about the many expenses that spiraled them into debt and hunger, from cell phone costs, transit, medications, a trip to the hospital, diapers, and more. Many residents spent less than $47.60 a week on food. 

By far, the biggest cost is rent. Rent has risen much faster than inflation over the past decade. Many people on social assistance live in overcrowded and poorly maintained homes, and many more end up homeless, often because they are evicted and cannot find any apartment or rooming house that meets their budget. I’ve been appalled by the extent of hidden poverty I have witnessed going door to door in our riding. 

The inflation crisis is sending more people into poverty and hunger. Bob Mandel, co-founder of the Avenue Road Food Bank, said the number of people visiting their food bank has gone up by 30 per cent in the past six weeks alone due to the rising cost of food and the arrival of people from Ukraine.  

“People from across Toronto, from as far as Mississauga, start queuing at 12 p.m. in rain, heat or snow, three hours before the food bank opens its doors at 3 p.m.  I’ve never seen a need like this. We used to have food left over to donate to kitchens, now we have none,” he said.

Shauna Harris, the co-founder of Spadina-Fort York Community Care, has a similar experience. Her food bank, which also serves people in University-Rosedale, provides food to people on social assistance, seniors, and low-income workers. Harris has seen food donations from grocery stores drop by about a quarter because of rising food costs. The food bank now “regularly runs out of food, forcing them to ration what people can take when they visit. People used to receive a whole carton of eggs, and now they get two or three,” she explained to me. 

Poverty was a central issue in the 2022 June election. The provincial government agreed to a five per cent increase in social assistance rates this year, with future increases tied to inflation. 

Reducing poverty will require a more comprehensive approach from Premier Ford. That approach must include stronger rent control, the construction of affordable housing, price caps on essential food, an increase to the minimum wage, and a doubling of social assistance rates.

Doubling social assistance rates is expensive—about $9 billion a year—but providing downstream services and support to people living in poverty is very expensive for governments as well.  

Poor people are more likely to get sick, die earlier, struggle with mental health, have encounters with the police, end up in an emergency room or hospital, sleep in a shelter, lose work, and have children who struggle, fail to complete high school, and fall short of their full potential, thereby perpetuating a cycle of poverty.  

On the positive side, people who are provided with more financial support are more likely to get their lives in order, care for their children, get a job, pay taxes, and contribute. People want to contribute, and to ensure more of them can, we must help them first.  

Contact our office if you need help or want to help the less fortunate in our riding.

Jessica Bell is the MPP for University-Rosedale and the Official Opposition’s Housing Critic.


Tags: Annex · Opinion