In 1995, the Ontario Progressive Conservative government under Mike Harris cut welfare rates by 21.6 percent. David Tsubouchi, then minister of community and social services, was in charge of implementing the cuts.

As “only one small part of this government’s commitment to helping people,” as Tsubouchi put it in a letter to Opposition Leader Bob Rae, the ministry constructed a sample shopping list for a single person on general welfare, which demonstrated how one could get by on a budget of $90.21 for food each month.

There were several problems with the shopping list, which was generally derided in the media. For one, the list seemed to assume that recipients were already in possession of many pantry staples. Bread was on the list, but no butter or margarine. Pasta was on the list, but no sauce. No coffee or tea. No salt or spices of any kind. And besides these obvious issues of palatability, journalists who tried the diet pointed out that it made them feel ill and provided only about half of the daily calories recommended by the World Health Organization.

The so-called welfare diet of 1995 was neither a good diet nor a healthy one. However, it does provide a useful benchmark for comparing the food costs that social assistance recipients have encountered since 1995. Social assistance levels and how much food can be bought with them are an important policy issue to consider, as a Progressive Conservative government consumed with cost-cutting enters office and the spectre of a global tariff war might mean a spike in food costs.

Because subsequent governments have not offered an amended version, the 1995 list is used here as a proxy for the bare minimum a welfare recipient is expected to live on. The list has been shopped regularly since 2010 for the purposes of research, at supermarkets in the east end of Toronto. Shopping the list allows for comparisons of the cost of the welfare diet over time, with both the rise in inflation and adjustments to the social assistance rate for single persons.

The cost of that 1995 welfare diet now exceeds inflation by 65 percent and has increased by almost double the rate at which payments under Ontario Works (social assistance) have increased (figure 1). Inflation as measured by the consumer price index (CPI) has risen 52.4 percent, while the cost of the welfare diet has increased by 86.3 percent.

Meanwhile, if the Ontario Works single rate of $663 per month in 1993 had not been cut in 1995, this rate would now be $1,036 a month, had it been adjusted for inflation. But the $663 amount was cut by 21.6 percent to $520 in October 1995. From that low point, the Ontario Works single rate has gone up by just 39 percent to $722 a month.

But even if the lower single welfare rate of $520 per month in 1995 had been adjusted for inflation, it would now stand at $791 per month. (Premier Doug Ford’s government announced this week it would eliminate a planned 3 percent increase, but even that rate would have been $47 lower in real terms than what Mike Harris cut it to in 1995.)

Another challenge for individuals in the lowest income levels is the difficulty in affording nutritious food.

Based on our comparison of prices between 1995 and 2018, the cost of fresh fruit and vegetables is accelerating more quickly than the cost of food with higher caloric content, and the price of protein (meat and alternatives) is increasing the most (figure 2).

As a Progressive Conservative government in Ontario takes over the reins of government in Ontario for the first time since 1995, we face a situation where social assistance rates have fallen farther in real terms than the amounts that they were cut to in 1995. Inflation has far outstripped increases to social assistance rates, and food inflation has far outstripped growth in the CPI.

And the cost of fresh and wholesome food has increased more than the overall cost of food, taken as a whole. The prediction of new food tariffs makes things even bleaker.

Single social assistance recipients simply can’t afford a reasonable diet on the money they get.

There may have been a time when a “welfare diet,” either as a political ploy or as an honest gesture, may have been able to claim a marginal measure of legitimacy. Those days are over.

We can only hope that the new government takes these issues more seriously than was the case in 1995.  They could have started by allowing passage of the 3% increase to social assistance rates and other positive changes pre-regulated by the previous Liberal government before they left office. They could have learned important lessons from the basic income pilot but chose to cancel both the social assistance changes and the basic income pilot on July 31, 2018. They could still implement the thoughtful plan conceived by three nonpartisan working groups, Income Security: A Roadmap for Change, presented to the Ontario government in 2017, but hopes for that are now dimming.

Photo: Shutterstock, by K.D.P. 

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John Stapleton
John Stapleton worked for the Ontario government in the Ministry of Community and Social Services for 28 years in social assistance policy. He is an Innovation Fellow with the Metcalf Foundation and sits on the federal advisory committee on poverty reduction. He is a member of the Council on Aging of Ottawa’s Expert Panel on Income Security.
Yvonne Yuan
Yvonne Yuan provided assistance with this article. Yvonne is a legal assistant at Jeff J. Li Professional Corp. and a research associate at Open Policy Ontario. She is a graduate of the University of Toronto in city studies and human geography, hoping to pursue a career in public policy and evidence-based research.

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