On April 1, members of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP), people on social assistance and their allies took to the streets of downtown Toronto to protest the slashing of the Special Diet Allowance supplement to Ontario Works (OW) and the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP).
Demonstrators converged on Nathan Phillip’s Square to mingle and enjoy a free meal before crossing the street to rally outside the Sheraton Hotel, where Ontario Finance Minister Dwight Duncan was speaking at a $90-a-seat luncheon. The inherent hypocrisy between cutting vital financial support required for poor people to eat, while on the same day hosting an expensive fundraising lunch, was pointed out by OCAP organizer John Clarke as he addressed the crowd under a large banner emblazoned with the 1930’s-era workers’ slogan: United we eat, divided we starve.
Participants were then treated to a theatrical presentation put on by students from a grade seven/eight math class, which demonstrated the economic polarization that has resulted from decades of neoliberal policies. The demonstration then marched up University Ave, and across Wellesley to the Ministry of Community and Social Services, where additional speakers from OCAP, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) and Ottawa’s Under Pressure spoke to the devastating effects of the Special Diet cuts and the importance of defending the supplement.
The “new” Special Diet Allowance was rolled out on April 1, and all recipients of the “old” Special Diet will be cut off on July 31. For many individuals and families living on social assistance, this change will mean a drastic loss of income. For some, it will mean once again encountering some of the serious risks associated with the extreme poverty that people on social assistance often face: illness, hunger and homelessness among them.
The cuts to the Special Diet, and social assistance rates as a whole, do not only affect those on OW/ODSP. Rather, they are clearly connected to austerity measures and other issues that affect the entire working class.
Placing the cuts within the context of this international attack on the poor, Clarke noted that “the Special Diet is in the way as far as the [provincial] Liberal government is concerned. It has partly undermined their efforts to drive people on assistance into deeper poverty and, thereby, force them into the lowest paying jobs on offer. One worker in six in Ontario is now working at or close to the minimum wage and the immense losses in income for the poor on social assistance have been vital in this process. If the Special Diet can be gutted successfully, the low wage sector can be supplied with even more workers.”
Speaking on the prospects of successfully fighting these cuts - and the larger offensive of which they are a part - Clarke affirmed that “an upsurge based on the mountains of anger in workplaces and communities is possible and even inevitable but it will require a fight for fundamentally different approaches. Our movements will need to be as committed to the class struggle as those on the other side… and we have our work cut out to revitalize them on that basis.”
OCAP’s demands are clear: Restore the Special Diet Allowance and raise OW and ODSP rates by 55% - bringing them back to the level they were at before the Harris government cuts. These demands should be supported by the entire working class, and just as important, they must be connected to the broader struggles against austerity measures and against a system that attacks us all. Whether we are unionized or non-unionized workers, unwaged or on OW/ODSP this is our struggle to fight – and our fight to win.