'Rhonda Barron on the 'BIG' conversation'.
Rhonda Barron works as a Health Promoter with Bridges Community Health Centre in Port Colborne and Fort Erie. The community health centres in the Niagara Region have worked together to support the formation of a grass roots group that call themselves Road to Empowerment. This is a report from Rhonda Barron on their participation in the Annual Campaign Meeting of the Put Food in the Budget campaign.
Fourteen anti-poverty advocates from Niagara loaded into an 11 passenger van and a four seater car on Thursday May 12 and headed to Toronto for Put Food in the Budget's (PFIB) annual event. For us this is an important solidarity building opportunity, a welcome reminder that we are not alone in the fight to end poverty.
This years event saw over 100 people gather at the Friends House in downtown Toronto for an afternoon of critical conversation around a Basic Income Guarantee and some participatory theatre that reminded us of the political realities that make poverty a seemingly unshakeable phenomenon.
For those of you not familiar with the PFIB campaign, it got its start in 2009 after the provincial government failed to respond to inadequate social assistance rates. Today they are calling for an increase in social assistance rates, minimum wage increases, affordable housing and an increase in corporate taxes. Realistic demands as far as we are concerned and action on the part of our Government is long overdue.
Other social justice advocates see a Basic Income Guarantee (BIG), a movement that has been receiving a lot of attention provincially, nationally and globally for the last couple of years, as an important part of the solution needed to eradicate poverty. Given the momentum around a BIG, including the Ontario Governments announcement of a pilot, there was some critical discussion around this concept, including its benefits and its perils. Both are worthy of attention.
Speaking in support of a BIG was Elaine Power, Nutritional Scientist fromQueen's University who teaches her students about the social determinants of health. She knows that income is the most important determinant and direct cause of food insecurities.
Today she is advocating for a social policy that has the potential to move everyone out of poverty by offering all Canadians under a certain income threshold a cash grant from the government that would provide them with enough money to meet their basic needs, regardless of work status.
But not everyone is a BIG fan, including John Clarke from the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty. Clarke calls a BIG a “wolf in sheep's clothing.” He warns us against buying into this thinly veiled austerity measure that would ultimately see our social safety net further eroded and replaced with a meager basic income at the expense of much needed publicly funded programs like housing and public health.
Clearly there are some different ideas about how we effect the change we want to see in the world. But regardless of where you stand on the social policy changes needed to end poverty, and how to achieve them, it doesn’t change the fact that food banks aren’t cutting it. They are a woefully inadequate approach to dealing with food insecurity and something needs to happen, now.
As advocates for social change we are always eager to hear some new or at least reinvented ideas on how we can move the prosperity agenda forward and get people the income security they need to live healthy lives.
For Clarke social change requires social unrest. The way forward, he argues, is “organized disruption, lots and lots of organized disruption.”
For Powers it’s continuing our work to build support for a Basic Income Guarantee through Resolutions and Calls for Action that are supported by all levels of government.
Ostensibly our electoral system should be the vehicle for social change so in theory it makes sense to take your concerns to our elected politicians. But the ensuing satire emerging from the day’s participatory theatre activities served as a glaring reminder that the reality may very well be that some politicians don’t care about poverty, or at least they don’t care enough to do anything about it.
As a facilitator of a cause advocacy group, Citizens Against Poverty and the Niagara Poverty Reduction Network’s, BIG Task Group, I believe a BIG is part of the solution, but we have to be careful how it’s designed and guard against the very concerns that Clarke so passionately articulated because his concerns are NOT ill founded.
In my opinion a BIG needs to build on existing basic income like programs such as the National Child Tax Benefit and the Guaranteed Annual Income for Seniors. These programs work. The evidence supports that they work. These policies are strongly aligned with Canadian values, and there’s a real palate for them; we just need to extend these benefits to all adults and children living in poverty. And this should not happen at the expense of other social programs.
At the end of the day we may have different ideas about how to reach our common goal of ending poverty, but one thing is certain: We stand united in our belief that, “now more than ever it’s time to Put Food in the Budget.”
John Clarke and Elaine Power
Put Food in the Budget