On Thursday, March 23, following Finance Minister Bethlenfalvy’s Speech from the Throne, the Provincial 2023-2024 Budget was introduced. Released shortly after the three-year anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Budget contained few provisions to support individuals and families living on low incomes who are still dealing with the financial and health impacts of the pandemic and who are now facing a growing affordability crisis.
The 2023 Provincial Budget focused on paying down the deficit, providing tax credits to business owners, investing in infrastructure projects, and accounting for several previously announced federal transfers and investments in healthcare and childcare. Important early pandemic-era programs, such as government-paid sick days and lower-barrier access to healthcare, will end at the end of the fiscal 2022-2023 year, leaving low wage workers and vulnerable Ontarians to face the ongoing pandemic without crucial supports.
ISAC’s recommendations for Budget 2023 called for investments in income security programs, access to justice, and workers’ rights. Unfortunately, there were few significant investments made in these areas, with much needed funds directed to pay down the deficit or sit in an over-sized contingency fund.
While the Finance Minister painted a rosy picture of the road ahead, the reality laid out by the 2023 Budget will be one of increasing hardship for the most vulnerable people in Ontario.
Little for ODSP recipients, no rate increase for OW recipients
The Budget included $1.4 billion to ensure Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) rates will receive inflationary increases over the next three years (p. 141). This investment supports the announcement made during the release of the August 2022 provincial budget. This is a positive step towards ensuring that people with disabilities who receive social assistance are not doubly impacted by increased costs due to inflation and increased costs related to disability.
Unfortunately, there are no other increases to ODSP rates, and no increases to Ontario Works (OW) rates. The latter remains stagnated at $733 a month for individuals, despite inflation averaging 6.5 per cent over the last 12 months. The rate is even lower for individuals receiving OW who have no fixed address, who are unhoused, or who are living in shelters. ISAC’s recommendation to introduce a flat-rate structure to OW and ODSP rates (eliminating the distinction between “Shelter” and “Basic Needs”) was not considered in the Budget. This means that homeless, unhoused, and precariously housed individuals who receive social assistance will have an even harder time finding permanent, stable housing, perpetuating and worsening the cycle of poverty for some of the most vulnerable Ontarians.
The 2023-2024 Budget notes that the Children, Community, and Social Services sector underspent its budget by $92 million in the 2022-2023 fiscal year (p. 131). These funds could have gone towards increasing base rates for OW recipients. Alternatively, these funds could have supported social assistance recipients who received CERB/CRB and have been deemed ineligible and who are now facing overpayments which further garnish below-poverty-level social assistance incomes. Keeping social assistance rates at 40-60 per cent below the poverty rate, particularly at a time when housing costs and food bank use have increased dramatically, is a cruel political choice.
GAINS increased for one year, indexed to inflation, and access to be broadened; cuts to eye-care for seniors
The Guaranteed Annual Income System (GAINS) program provides a monthly, non-taxable benefit to low-income Ontario seniors. For the rest of 2023, GAINS payments will be doubled up to a maximum of $166 per month for single seniors and up to $332 per month for couples. This investment supports the announcement made at the release of the Province’s Fall Economic Statement in November 2022. Starting in July 2024, the GAINS rate will be indexed to inflation, and access will be broadened to 100,000 additional seniors through an increase to the qualifying income threshold.
Short and long-term changes to GAINS are positive for low income seniors who face limited ability to increase their income through employment or other means. However, shortly after the Budget was announced, the Province announced a reduction in the number of OHIP-covered eye care visits for Ontarians aged 65 and older. Seniors may now end up spending more out of pocket on healthcare because of these changes, tempering the good news about GAINS.
No investments in access to justice
As others have pointed out, program spending in key areas barely increased in this Budget. This includes no new investments made to Legal Aid Ontario, no investments in affordable digital access for low-income Ontarians to support the province’s “Digital First” approach to accessing justice services, and no investments designed to address the massive backlog and deteriorating adjudicative services at the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario.
Without investments in these areas, low income Ontarians who face discrimination in employment, housing, or the provision of services will have no meaningful and accessible forum for recourse. Low income Ontarians experiencing challenges with digital literacy, language barriers, and who cannot afford digital infrastructure such as computers, phones, high-speed internet, or phone minutes, will have an even more difficult time when seeking to assert their legal rights.
Government-funded paid sick days ended, no provisions for sick workers
On March 31, 2023, the government’s Worker Income Protection Benefit (WIPB) program is set to expire (p. 90). The WIPB was far from adequate for workers, providing access to only three government-paid sick days over the course of the past 700 days. Nevertheless, it is disappointing to see the government let the program expire without replacing it with adequate, permanent, employer-paid sick days.
Paid sick days are critical to achieving equitable protections for workers in Ontario. Low-wage and racialized workers have been hardest hit by the pandemic. They are more likely to be engaged in the precarious work deemed “essential,” including work in grocery stores, cleaning, delivery, long-term care, and farm work. These workers are at higher risk of contracting COVID-19 (and are therefore at higher risk of experiencing Long COVID), and yet are less likely to have paid sick days. In other words, the workers most in need of paid sick days do not have access to them.
To let the WIPB program end without a plan to legislate adequate paid sick days for all workers in Ontario is irresponsible and belies the claim that this government is working for workers.
No provisions for raising floor on the minimum wage
For workers who are making the minimum wage, the Budget contains little that will help them grapple with the rising cost of living. Roughly two million workers in Ontario make below $20 an hour. As the price of food, gas, and rent continues to rise it has become apparent that workers in the province need a higher wage floor.
Instead of raising wages, the government has chosen to provide employers with a $780 million tax break over three years (p. 47), which will only exacerbate inequality in Ontario. Raising the minimum wage would help to sustain local economies across the province as low-income households in particular spend increased wages on essential goods and services, and on their families.
No movement towards equal pay for equal work provisions or protections against misclassification of contract workers
More than one in five employees are affected by arbitrary and unjust differential pay on the basis of their employment status. The failure to ensure “equal pay for equal work” puts less money in the pockets of Ontarians to reinvest into the economy, and disproportionately affects women, recent immigrants, young and older workers, people with disabilities, and racialized workers.
Without strengthening and addressing major inadequacies in the Employment Standards Act, 2000, such as no provision for equal pay for equal work or protections against systematic misclassification of contract workers, this government signals no interest in making sure low wage, precarious workers are protected.
Investments in supportive housing and homelessness prevention programs, and mental health and addictions services
Budget 2023 included the announcement of $202 million each year starting in 2023–24 for the Homelessness Prevention Program and Indigenous Supportive Housing Program to help prevent and address homelessness (p. 142). The Budget also re-announced investments in clearing the backlog at the Landlord Tenant Board (p. 83).
Housing advocates have noted that a host of interventions including strengthening and enforcing the Residential Tenancies Act, enacting rent control and penalties for illegal evictions, ending vacancy de-control, and addressing the dysfunctional Landlord Tenant Board are needed for renters in the province to maintain secure, long-term affordable housing. Housing stability is key to ensuring employment stability and income security. This Budget includes little in the way of protecting low income renters from the ongoing housing affordability crisis.
The 2023 Budget included an investment of $425 million over three years for mental health and addictions services, which includes a five per cent increase in the base funding of community‐based mental health and addiction service providers funded by the Ministry of Health (p. 89). This investment is badly needed, however it falls short of the eight per cent increase to base funding which community mental health organizations asked for, and does not address critiques of the province’s Roadmap to Wellness mental health strategy.
Missed opportunity to make life better for struggling Ontarians right now
The provincial government has repeatedly stressed self-reliance and individual action by Ontarians who are struggling. However, this Budget does not facilitate changes to regulations, laws, or strategies, nor does it fund community-supported plans to ensure the safety, security, and success of low income Ontarians.
Movement out of poverty is impossible on extremely low incomes. Without the ability to afford stable housing, access to food, affordable transit, and supportive and affordable healthcare services, social assistance recipients and precarious low-wage workers will continue to bear the weight of the worsening affordability crisis. Choosing to pay down the deficit over supporting the people of Ontario who need it most right now is the wrong move.