The real story about the economy lies with the poor
Saturday, March 21, 2009 – Print Edition, Page A10

If you want to hear the real story about the economy, you have to go down the laneway off the busy Toronto street, past the dead raccoon lying on the electrical transformer and into the old garage that has been helping kids grow up for nearly four decades.

The men who run Canada's troubled auto companies don't come to the Cabbagetown Youth Centre and neither do their well-paid employees. It's not the sort of place where you would find David Dodge and Stephen Harper debating how long the recession will last. Here, the talk is more about the lack of affordable housing, the shrinking job market and the drudgery of getting on.

"We need more money," said Chrysantha Sahayarajah, who came from Sri Lanka eight years ago and is struggling to raise two children and to help her mother on $16,000 a year since her husband lost his job. "We are struggling here. It is very expensive, this country."

Ms. Sahayarajah told her story yesterday to Premier Dalton McGuinty as part of a staged event in which he maintained that he hasn't forgotten his commitment to thin the ranks of Ontario's poor despite the downturn in the economy. He is under enormous pressure to live up to the commitment he made four months ago to reduce child poverty by 25 per cent within five years.

Anti-poverty activists have been unnerved lately by their reading of the tea leaves. They note that Finance Minister Dwight Duncan didn't mention the poor in a recent speech about the economic stimulus plans in Thursday's budget. And they fretted when Deb Matthews, the cabinet minister responsible for the poverty file, suggested the recession could affect the government's strategy by noting that "things have changed."

So there was an element of damage control in Mr. McGuinty's visit to the youth centre. He said, as he often does, that reducing poverty is both the "right thing to do" and is also the purest form of stimulus because struggling families will spend every extra penny in their communities. But he went a step further by announcing that the government would speed up a planned enrichment of the Ontario Child Benefit and also spend $620-million in a partnership with the federal government on new social housing.

The increase in the child benefit - to $1,100 per child annually from $600 effective this July 1 rather than in 2011 - is particularly significant in a very immediate way. This $400-million expenditure will mean an extra $92 a month for each of the 1.3 million children in whose name the support is extended.

The huzzas rained down on the Premier from activists who saw the moves as a "good first step" and were delighted that there were any steps at all. "It matters that government is at least recognizing that poverty can be solved with good policy," said Sarah Blackstock, a policy analyst with the Income Security Advocacy Centre.

The pressure on Mr. McGuinty will not dissipate, however, despite a collapse in the economy that has taken Ontario quickly from a budget surplus to a projection of $18-billion in deficits in the next two years.

Ms. Blackstock noted that the rise in the benefit does nothing to help the growing ranks of single, jobless people. Activists want reform of a welfare system that requires people to divest themselves of their assets before getting assistance.

The Premier agreed it's a stupid rule. "Unwittingly, we have developed a policy that stomps you into the ground," he said. But he quickly added - with admirable honesty - that he hasn't got an answer yet.

Meanwhile, people like Ms. Sahayarajah hover in his view. "I have to say thanks to you," she said of the richer benefit her children will receive, "but it's not enough."

It's the real story of this troubled time.

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