Austerity Agenda Means Mounting Attacks on Poor


by John Clarke

As we approach May Day, it is worth considering the impact of the mounting austerity agenda on the poorest part of the working class and some of the ways the poor are fighting back as part of an emerging common front.

Since 1995, people living on social assistance in Ontario have seen their sub poverty incomes reduced by about 55%. The Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) has responded to this by initiating the Raise the Rates Campaign to challenge cutbacks by the Liberal Government and to press for the restoration of social assistance. We joined with a wide range of local anti poverty organizations and with the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE Ontario) in this fight.

Towards the end of last year, the Liberals announced the elimination of the vital Community Start Up and Maintenance Benefit (CSUMB) that people on social assistance used to maintain housing or obtain it if they were homeless. It was replaced with a patchwork of locally administered, underfunded programs.

The Raise the Rates Campaign took up a huge fight on this issue. A week of action was organized in some thirty communities, with demonstrations, occupations and even road closings. This effort, along with other initiatives, forced the Government to put back $42 million in funding for the new programs. It was a partial victory but it showed that we are not powerless and can fight back successfully.

As a Provincial Budget looms, the austerity driven attacks on the poor from Queen’s Park are going to intensify and we will face greater struggles ahead.

Photo courtesy OCAP

Photo courtesy OCAP

Here in Toronto, the impact of economic downturn and social cutbacks has reached the level where homeless people are being left to die on the streets. Last year alone, there were forty two recorded homeless deaths. In recent months, we have challenged the appalling overcrowding in the homeless shelters. The response of the Mayor and administration was to claim that all was well and that the shelters were meeting needs.

OCAP and many allies mobilized to demand that the city government respond to the crisis on the streets. We held two occupations at Metro Hall and City Hall, setting up shelters for the homeless in both places. Police were used to clear us out but we didn’t give up. After months of community action, City Council voted to reduce the occupancy rate in the shelters.

We are not raising our voice against something we are powerless to stop. We are fighting to win. OCAP intends to build the size and strength of our resistance to poverty and austerity and to unite with communities and unions fighting back. Poor and working people did not create the crisis that has led to government cutbacks and we won’t let them make us pay for it.