In the lead up to the Ontario budget, the Wellesley Institute asked whether Minister Duncan would choose a road of fiscal prudence, or whether he would adopt the austerity agenda of his opponents. Today he chose the austerity agenda.
In his speech today, Minister Duncan said that we all have to play our part to return the budget to balance. But in this case, fairness doesn’t mean treating everyone the same way. Doctor and hospital CEO salaries will be frozen, while social assistance rates have also been frozen. But the impact of a salary freeze is very different for a physician or CEO than a rate freeze for someone who is living on $599 a month. The Wellesley Institute has previously talked about the impact on the health of Ontarians of the government’s decision to freeze social assistance rates and slow the increase in child benefits.
The good news is that the government did not follow the recommendations of the Drummond Commission to hold increases in social spending to just 0.5 percent. The government has increased spending on social and children’s services by an average of 2.7 percent over the next three years, the largest percentage increase of any sector.
However, the bad news is that the impact on people who are receiving social assistance doesn’t end with the rate freeze. Minister Duncan announced that benefits for people who rely on social assistance will be reduced by $30 million this year and over $200 million over 3 years.
This will reduce access to benefits that cover housing-related expenses – for example if you have to move, or if you have expenses related to bedbugs. It will also put a cap on benefits that are available for expenses like emergency dental services, eyeglasses, and burials.
The combination of the social assistance rate freeze, the delayed increase in the Ontario Child Benefit, and reduced access to essential benefits will take $180 million out of the pockets of the poorest Ontarians. These cutbacks in services will have a direct and negative impact on the health of some of Ontario’s most marginalized populations, and all Ontarians have to share the social and economic costs of poor health.
Sharing the costs of austerity fairly doesn’t mean expecting the same contributions from everyone. It means that contributions are based on capacity. The lowest income Ontarians, whose health is most at risk, should not be expected to share equally in solving a deficit problem that was not of their making.