A friend was recounting his experience as a volunteer at a breakfast program in a Downtown school near Regent Park. He says 25 to 30 kids show up each day for the fruit plus bagel and cream cheese, for which they pay 25¢.
He likes the kids a lot but he says they are a sadly distinct group. Generally they mumble, they don’t look you in the eye, they keep their heads down, they don’t often smile.
He thinks they generally don’t know how to deal well with adults; perhaps they feel afraid.
We chatted a bit and he said, “The way they carry themselves seems to reflect on their home lives. Being poor means the adults at homes are probably consumed with a lot of anger and despair, and there’s not much joy. You fear where their lives are headed.”
He was talking about kids who are 10 years of age and under. Jesuits are reputed to say, “Give me a child of five or six and I can shape the person.” Poverty does a pretty effective job, too. We are allowing it to shape too many of our Downtown children.
While a breakfast program helps deal with issues of hunger and nutrition, as well as provide a couple of friendly adults for the kids to deal with every morning, it doesn’t deal with the primary influence, a culture of poverty.
In the Throne Speech the provincial government promised to adopt the social assistance recommendations made by Frances Lankin and Munir Sheikh in a report last October. That will begin to address the problems, but it is only a small start. For instance, the report proposes to increase the social assistance benefit by $100 a month—from $599 to $699 for a single person.
Do they really expect that to make a difference? Who do you know who could pay rent, food, clothing and more with just $700 a month?
For a mother with a child, the rate will probably be bumped from $1053 to $1153 a month. That sounds like a solid way to keep breakfast programs full of children.
The report proposes simplifying the way social assistance is administered and slicing the welter of rules which now clog the system. It’s always good to become more efficient, and it saves money. But can it reduce poverty, or is that a pipedream?
It urges changes to allow those on welfare lucky enough to find work to keep more of the income they earn. Currently the rule is that if you find a job the government will claw back half your gross paycheque, hardly making it worthwhile. It’s a good change to allow them to keep the first $200, but can we actually create the job opportunities which those on welfare need? Already we have many young people with skills who can’t find work.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not against these changes being made. I want them to be made. I’m glad the Ontario Liberals and the Ontario New Democrats found the common ground to support these changes.
But I want bigger changes to follow. Maybe a quarter of all Toronto children are raised in poverty. Let’s set the goal of reducing that to 15% (still a shockingly high number) by 2018, five years from now when the deficit is reduced to nothing.
That will probably take not a $100 boost to the monthly benefit, but maybe $400, which would have a price tag of perhaps $1 billion. We’d need more affordable housing and better child care, too, to improve lives. And that’s even more money.
Hey, we’d probably have to raise taxes to pay for it. Some of us with family incomes of $75,000 or more might find we’re asked to pay an extra dollar a day in taxes, perhaps more if our income was higher. It might be a good way to spend money.
The premier and other leaders are talking about tolls or other devices to create the money to make transportation improvements. I say: Share the wealth. Use the new money to get smiling and confident children from poorer homes at breakfast.
John Sewell is a former mayor of Toronto