Poverty advocates decry loss of diet allowance
Laurie Monsebraaten Social Justice Reporter
Ontario is scrapping the Special Diet Allowance that helps people on social assistance pay extra food costs related to specific medical conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure.
Confirming the pre-budget fears of anti-poverty advocates, the Liberal government cited last fall’s provincial auditor’s report, which found evidence of abuse in the welfare-based program.
Instead, the budget is proposing a new nutritional supplement to be administered by the health ministry.
The allowance program that provides up to $250 per month and helps about one in five people on social assistance “is not sustainable and is not achieving the intended results,” budget documents say.
It serves about 162,000 people and has ballooned from $6 million in 2003 to more than $200 million in 2008, the government has said.
The new health supplement would be “medically based and would help individuals with severe medical needs that are on social assistance,” the budget says.
Transition to the new program will occur over the next several months to “give recipients the opportunity to adjust,” the budget adds.
Details on how it would work, how much money people would get and who would be eligible, will be released soon, officials said. However, it is expected the new program will cost government less than what it pays now.
The Ontario Human Rights Commission ruled last month that the allowance program discriminates against people with certain conditions. It ordered the province to increase payments for three complainants and boost benefits for everyone under similar circumstances within three months.
But the budget’s plan to kill the allowance in favour of a new program, effectively allows the government to side step the ruling, officials said.
NDP leader Andrea Horwath said it is “shameful” for the government to be ending the special diet allowance.
“The government has abandoned all pretence of dealing with the poverty issues that many people in our province face,” she told reporters.
“The government is fighting its deficit on the backs of the most vulnerable and poor people of this province,” she added.
In other measures that will impact the province’s poorest residents, the budget calls for a 1-per-cent increase to social assistance, to take effect next fall. In means single people on welfare would see their monthly cheques rise by $6 to $571, while those on the province’s disability support program would see their monthly payments go up by $11 to $1,053.
Inflation, however, is expected to top 1.9 per cent this year.
“The one-percent (welfare increase) is obviously inadequate and it does nothing to deal with what the government – at least in the past — has said is one of its priorities, which is poverty reduction,” Horwath said.
Ontario’s minimum wage will increase to $10.25 an hour on March 31, as planned. But after seven consecutive years of increases, no more hikes are scheduled in the budget.
To improve worker protection and modernize employment standards, the budget is investing an additional $6 million over two years. This is on top of $4.5 million invested last year to hire more employment standards officers. Together, the $7.5 annual investment will help reduce the backlog of worker claims of labour standards violations, the budget says.
As part of its five-year poverty reduction strategy, the province promised in 2008 to invest $10 million annually to hire about 100 new employment standard officers.