For two weeks, several New Democrat MPPs are putting their money where their mouth is to show how hard it is to live on social assistance.
They’re pledging to spend no more than $95.21 on groceries until Sept. 19 to approximate the “paltry” food budgets available to thousands living on the Ontario Disability Support Program after paying rent and other bills.
Although Premier Doug Ford is increasing ODSP payments five per cent this month and indexing them to inflation going forward, the NDP is pushing for rates to be doubled to help recipients cope with fast-rising prices for food and other costs of living.
“We’re in an affordability crisis,” said New Democrat MPP Monique Taylor (Hamilton Mountain), whose party promised to double disability and Ontario Works rates in the June 2 election that saw voters return Ford to Queen’s Park with a larger majority.
“The cost of food was up 9.7 per cent in July. Food banks are seeing record usage, and housing costs were up 7.4 per cent,” Taylor, her party’s critic for social services, told a news conference Monday.
She described the challenges of shopping on a tight budget that leaves many ODSP and Ontario Works recipients relying on food banks by the end of the month. ODSP for people with “substantial” mental or physical disabilities that leave them mostly unable to work pays a maximum of $1,227 a month with the Ford increase. Ontario Works pays $733.
“I got the last loaf of bread that was the cheapest on the shelf,” Taylor said.
Disability program recipient Andrea Hatala said rates have not increased in four years, and the extra $58 she will get monthly is not keeping pace with inflation.
“The rates for ODSP were too low to begin with and now that inflation has come up, what used to cost $60, you know, for groceries, now costs $80 to $90.”
Ford defended the five per cent ODSP hike in the legislature Monday.
“This is the largest increase in over a decade,” he said. “We’ll always fight for people that need our help. That’s the reason we lowered taxes for 1.7 million lower-income people.”
The $95.21 figure was calculated from the shopping list suggested by a previous PC government headed by Mike Harris as he cut welfare rates in 1995 — when his social services minister David Tsubouchi was roundly criticized for suggesting recipients buy “dented” cans of tuna to save money.
Dented cans are potentially dangerous because food poisoning can develop when the seal is broken. The shopping list included Corn Flakes, oatmeal, whole wheat bread, pasta, rice, bananas, broccoli, cauliflower, apples, orange juice, potatoes, yogurt, cheese, ground beef, chicken, eggs, bologna, beans and peanut butter.
The NDP “social assistance diet” comes 40 years after former New Democrat MPP Richard Johnston decided to do it for a month to draw attention to concerns about welfare rates in 1982, when Progressive Conservative premier Bill Davis was in power.
“We’re hoping that we’re going to be able to change their mind,” Taylor said of the Ford government.
Also going on the diet are New Democrat MPPs Lise Vaugeois (Thunder Bay-Superior North), the party’s critic for persons with disabilities and accessibility, Chandra Pasma (Ottawa West-Nepean), critic for poverty and homelessness reduction, Joel Harden (Ottawa Centre) and Jessica Bell (University-Rosedale).
Rob Ferguson is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @robferguson1