On November 2, the Ontario Government released the 2023 Ontario Economic Outlook and Fiscal Review, titled “Building a Strong Ontario Together”. Aside from a provision for low‐income seniors, the Review contains glaring omissions in recognizing the needs of low-income Ontarians during these times of soaring inflation and the increased cost of living, raising the question: how can the Review live up to its title?
In regards to affordability, notable mentions from the Review include the expansion of Guaranteed Annual Income System (GAINS) payments for low-income seniors starting July 2024, and the extension of the gas tax cut of 5.7 cents-per-litre until June 2024. While these can play some part in putting money back in pockets of Ontarians, they offers little to many Ontarians in need, including more than 400,000 Ontarians who rely on Ontario Works (OW), many of whom are children to parents who receive OW.
We were disappointed to see that there is no raise to the monthly amount of $733 that a single person can receive under OW. This amount has remained stagnant over the last six years, since 2018. Though the budget recognizes 3.6% inflation in September alone, OW rates have not been adjusted to inflation at all, and the OW earning exemption remains at $200 per month before clawbacks of income assistance begin. The lack of any consideration for low-income Ontarians on OW is punishing, and effectively pushes them further into the depths of poverty.
The Fall Economic Review also leaves out any mention of the large scale social assistance modernization the province is undertaking, or any investment to facilitate it. The modernization process that involves Social Assistance Renewal (SAR) led by the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services (MCCSS), and the Employment Services Transformation (EST) undertaken by the Ministry of Labour, Immigration, Training and Skills Development, understandably requires significant investment. Previously, ISAC raised the concern that there was not adequate investment in SAR’s “life stabilization” services related to housing, mental health, addiction counselling, and domestic violence supports, among others. This unfortunately continues to be true, as there was nothing in the Review regarding investment in the province’s social assistance modernization scheme.
The Fall Economic Review commits to “working for workers” by focusing heavily on skills development and training. Yet there is no mention of access to labour protections, including the rising number of gig workers who remain without access to significant ESA protections, or paid sick days. Increasing the minimum wage to $16.55 per hour as of October 2023 was a positive development, but the fact remains that this rate is significantly behind the living wage – defined as the minimum hourly wage necessary to meet a worker’s basic needs. The living wage in the Greater Toronto Area alone is $25.05, and there are no regions across the province where $16.55 per hour qualifies as a living wage.
The Economic Outlook also leaves little reason to be optimistic about the future of poverty reduction and adequate investments for those who need it most. It projects MCCSS’s budget increase from $19.4 billion in 2023–24 to $19.9 billion in 2025–26. The increase is due to adjusting the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) rates to inflation, and for the Assistance for Children with Severe Disabilities Program (ACSD). While these modest investments are welcome, years of frozen rates and lack of investment have dulled the shine on these funding announcements. Many who receive ODSP and ACSD are still living deep poverty, without any sign that the province will continue to increase investments and make sure their needs are met.
The aspiration of “Building a Strong Ontario Together” is an admirable one. But the Fall Economic Review indicates that the province is planning to do so by focusing on infrastructure, while ignoring the needs of low-income Ontarians who keep the wheels of the province turning. A strong Ontario is a poverty-free Ontario. Unfortunately, the Fall Economic Review falls short of recognizing that.