One of the campaign promises of the newly elected federal government was to immediately restore the long-form census. This would be an important step to help create the long-term policy changes necessary to help lift more people out of poverty.
Research is critical to creating social change
Daily Bread believes that research is critical to creating social change and to reduce poverty. The more accurate the information that policy-makers have about those living in poverty, the more likely effective, evidence-based policy can be developed in order to create long-term change.
Back in 2010, the Conservative government cancelled the long-form census in favour of a voluntary national household survey. This action caused concern across a wide spectrum of business, government, and non-profit organizations alike, including Daily Bread Food Bank. What was once a highly regarded source of statistical information for planners and researchers would be far less accurate due to the inevitable decreased rate of response due to this change.
National Household Survey a poor substitute
Sure enough, response rates to the voluntary National Household Survey (NHS) decreased drastically compared to earlier censuses, including an underrepresentation of those at either end of the income scale. Both low and very high income earners alike were less likely to respond to the voluntary survey.
As a result, researchers and planners found the data from the National Household Survey to be unreliable and less representative of the general population, and resulted in a poorer quality of information available from which to base important policy-making decisions.
Finding out how to improve services and outcomes for people in poverty
Decreased response rates from the lower income population are particularly problematic when trying to develop policies to address high rates of poverty. A national investigation by Global News found out that neighbourhoods with higher numbers of people receiving social assistance had higher non-response rates to the NHS. This lack of information makes it far more difficult for city planners and public health officials to develop policies that would help improve services and outcomes for those in need.
Developing smart policy, as well as providing evidence as to which policies work, requires data that is most representative of the population and accurate. You can’t fix a complex problem like poverty until you’ve been able to identify what the problem is and that requires the kind of valuable information that you can only get from the long-form census. Reinstating the long-form census as soon as possible would help make this happen.
How even the paltriest shopping list became unaffordable for those receiving social assistance
In their paper “The Welfare Diet, 20 years later”, John Stapleton and Jamille Clarke-Darshanand mark the 20th anniversary of the creation of a sample shopping list which was used to demonstrate what a single person receiving welfare could afford to purchase. This shopping list, created by the provincial government at the time, was used to justify the massive welfare rate cut they implemented a couple of months earlier.
This shopping list was very sparse by any standard; it didn’t include staple items such as salt, pepper, or pasta sauce (although it did contain pasta), and was far from nutritionally complete. However, the authors’ show in their paper how the cost of even this bare bones diet has increased at a rate that has far outstripped core inflation, let alone the income provided by social assistance.
It was 20 years ago that the provincial Conservative government at the time cut welfare rates by over 21 per cent. It was an action which was purportedly implemented to discourage dependence on “the system”. Instead, it led to vastly increased hardship for thousands of Ontarians, and a huge surge in food bank visits at a rate which hasn’t been seen quite to the same extent since.
Within a two year period from 1995 to 1997, food bank visits in Toronto skyrocketed by almost 40 per cent. Another huge surge took place after the 2008 recession, but even a global economic crash did not have quite the same effect as that one government action made at policy level 20 years earlier.
Source: Food bank visit numbers from Daily Bread Food Bank and North York Harvest member agencies
In the years following that massive rate cut, welfare rates remained frozen until 2003, and have been raised only marginally since. Using the “welfare diet” as a benchmark, the paper demonstrates that the cost of food has gone up by 107 per cent since 1995. By contrast, core inflation as measured by the Consumer Price Index (CPI) has gone up by 45 per cent, while the rate for a single person receiving welfare has gone up by just 31%.
While the rate for a single person household is used as an example, social assistance rates for all household types, including people receiving provincial disability assistance, face a similar deficit.
Source: John Stapleton and Jamille Clarke-Darshanand, “The Welfare Diet 20 years later” The growing nutrition crisis for Ontario’s poorest people. September 2015. (Author’s note).
With the price inflation of food accelerating in the last couple years, especially meat, fruits and vegetables, it is not surprising that people living on fixed incomes such as social assistance or pensions are having an increasingly difficult time affording an adequate diet. While housing related costs are the biggest financial pressure for people accessing food banks in Toronto, the rising costs of food have added to the burden.
At food banks we see more people who, a couple years ago, may have been able to afford to shop at a grocery store a couple times a month – and now can hardly afford to shop at all. This includes people with disabilities and people receiving pensions. In 2005, households receiving provincial disability assistance were 18 per cent of those accessing food banks in Toronto; now they make up 34 per cent.
Torontonians are also accessing food banks in Toronto for longer periods than before: where previously the average duration was 12 months; that average has now doubled to 24 months. More and more, food banks are becoming less of short term, stop-gap measure, and more of a long term coping strategy.
As the paper mentions, this all means we have a disaster-in-waiting regarding health and human costs. As the federal election quickly approaches, it is all the more important that addressing poverty and hunger are prominent on the campaign radar.
To download a pdf copy of the full report, ‘The Welfare Diet, 20 Years Later’, please click here.
To read the full story on this report in the Toronto Star, click here.