The Doug Ford Tories in Ontario have spent a lot of time magically inflating the provincial deficit and vowing to tackle it with a pitiless austerity attack. If there was one area of that assault where a right wing fire breather like Ford might have been expected to feel confident and enthusiastic, it is in the area of regressive ‘welfare reform.’ However, the government’s recent retreat on a number of planned measures, including and especially, the scheduled elimination of the Transitional Child Benefit (TCB) seems somewhat out of character and not a little surprising.
A little more than a year ago, it seemed that the Ford government was poised for a major assault on the already seriously degraded income support system. Then social services minister, Lisa MacLeod, announced that the 3% increase in social assistance rates, that had been set by the previous Liberal government, would be cut in half and a series of planned policy improvements would be eliminated. Most strikingly, she killed off the Liberal’s basic income pilot project. While I remain convinced that basic income, if it is taken forward, will only serve a neoliberal agenda, the elimination of the pilot shamefully abandoned the 4,000 who had been recruited into it. Most significantly, though, the move was intended to set the tone for Ford’s ‘welfare reform.’
MacLeod forcefully stressed that any policy that went in the direction of reduced conditionality would not be in line with the approach her government would take. ‘Handouts that actually do little if anything to break the cycle of poverty’ would be cast aside in favour of a doubling down on bureaucratic intrusion and moral policing. ‘The best social program is a job,’ the minister stated, with an enthusiasm not dampened by lack of originality. A hundred day review would begin immediately with the intention of creating a few meagre carrots and a good supply of solid sticks to ensure the benefits system was refined as a tool to drive people into the worst and lowest paying jobs on offer.
When the much heralded review was finally issued, in November of last year, it certainly presented an impeccably reactionary and dangerous framework for right wing welfare reform. It looked to shut out a mass of disabled people from access to the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) and to reshape the Ontario Works (OW) program to more perfectly function as a supplier of cheap labour. It was suggested that a $1 billion cut to the Ministry of Community and Social Services could be anticipated. However, while the Ontario Tories of the 1990s moved quickly and ruthlessly on the social assistance front, the Ford regime was not being nearly so decisive and the months dragged by with no clear time frame set for the general blueprint to be put into effect.
The Child Benefit
Then, in May, the story broke that the Transitional Child Benefit (TCB) would be eliminated. The minister revelled in the idea that this was a racist measure that would target refugee families. In the Legislature, she defiantly asked those who challenged her, “Is it fair to give a taxpayer subsidy to those who are crossing the border illegally and will likely be deported? Is it fair to provide a taxpayer subsidy to those who do not file?” The Tory plan did, indeed, spell hardship for refugee families but, in fact, they make up only about 35% of the 16,000 families with 32,000 children receiving the TCB. The benefit provides meagre support for those unable to access federal and provincial tax benefits and its elimination would have been utterly devastating.
So, when the Ford government announced that it was backing off from cutting the TCB, you could almost hear Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan turning in their graves. Hard right conservatives are not expected to shy away from vicious social cutbacks with statements like, “We are listening and exploring the best ways to bring the most positive outcomes for Ontarians in need." It’s true that the Tories were facing some opposition, with the Income Security Advocacy Centre (ISAC) mounting a legal challenge and a broad coalition to oppose the cut starting to go into action. However, it would not be realistic to say that these efforts were yet putting them under the kind of pressure that might have forced their hand. What then is at work here and why are Doug Ford and his cohorts hesitating in this way?
The first thing I would reject is that this is all some Machiavellian plan, with tactical retreats designed to throw opponents into confusion. The normal style of right wing austerity regimes (and Ford is cut from this cloth) is to move hard and fast in the face of opposition, with retreat only considered as a last resort. In my view, the uncertainty the Ford government is showing in the area of welfare reform must be understood, in part, because of the particular characteristics of the regime but, to a much greater extent, it must be viewed in light of some present contradictions that the attack on income support is encountering on an international scale.
Erratic and Crisis Ridden
It’s no secret that Doug Ford was not the choice of the Tory establishment for leader but that he was lifted up by the right moving party base. Even so reactionary an institution as the National Post, acknowledged during the last election that he would be a terrible Premier but endorsed him because the alternative was an NDP government.
There is no need to trace Ford’s many stumbles and simmering scandals but it is fair to say that his track record to date has been marked by the kind of problems that you might expect from a brash populist outsider who is out of his political depth. There are valid comparisons to be made to the hard right Ontario Tory government of the 90s but the erratic, blundering Ford has not matched the single minded forward march of the Mike Harris ‘Common Sense Revolution.’
The massive cabinet shuffle that Ford undertook just a year into his mandate was, doubtless, a reflection of dreadful poll results and a number of glaring manifestations of his government’s unpopularity but it also reflected the fact that he presides over a seething cauldron of discontent within the Tory ranks, with the ever present threat of an internal rebellion. Of course, a looming federal election only increases the level of uncertainty and hesitation among the Ontario Tories. Ford’s extreme unpopularity has made him a liability to the federal Conservative campaign and he has particular reason to keep a low profile until after voting day. These factors may contribute to a somewhat cautious attitude but Ford could count on significant support for an attack on the poor and, in my opinion, the delay and uncertainly his government is showing has more to do with problems confronting right wing welfare reform at this point in time.
Neoliberal War on the Poor
Marx famously wrote that "Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past." That consideration applies to dull witted political thugs who find themselves running governments. Despite all the doubts and regrets that exist within the Tory establishment and in the corporate boardrooms, Doug Ford is charged with conducting a spell in government by one of the major political institutions that serve the interests of the capitalist class in Ontario. He is there to develop and deepen the agenda of neoliberal austerity and, by escalating the attack on workers’ rights and the social infrastructure, to increase the rate of exploitation. A big part of this relates to those income support programmes that fall under the control of the Ontario government. It is precisely here that the way forward for the neoliberal agenda is less clearly marked than it was for the Tories of the 1990s and, in my view, this is where the greater part of the explanation for the Ford government’s relative caution and its retreat on the child benefit can be found.
If we go back to the roots of present day income support systems, we return to the model of the English Poor Laws. The principle of ‘less eligibility,’ that the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act set out, required that the condition of the recipient of relief ‘shall not be made really or apparently as eligible as the independent labourer of the lowest class.’ By that yardstick, it’s hard to see how the Poor Law Guardians of Victorian England could find an unkind word to say about Ontario’s social assistance system in 2019. There is no reason to conclude that the austerity attack on income support has been abandoned but the way forward is less obvious than it has been in the past.
There is no doubt, with profitable investment at a premium, that Canadian capitalism needs to extract more surplus value from the workforce and that there is every interest in ensuring that the income support systems facilitate, rather than impede, this exploitative endeavour. However, this is not the 1990s and the work of Harris Tories in driving down the adequacy of social assistance benefits, consolidated and deepened by the Liberals who followed them, has already been crowned with great success. The climate of desperation that Harris cuts generated and the resulting proliferation of low wage precarious work have made great strides. While the Ford Tories have now frozen social assistance rates and condemned people to worsening levels of poverty, nothing approaching the 21.6% cut of the 90s is conceivable. We are back to the Poor Laws again, which, however harsh in their design and implementation, were introduced as a reluctant concession to stave off outright social dislocation and mass unrest. Any government has to deal with the social impacts of the measures it takes and, at a certain point, those impacts become disruptive enough to give even the most reckless advocate of austerity reason to stop and consider.
If you check the City of Toronto’s own Daily Shelter Census and examine the monthly averages, you get a sense of how the homeless crisis has spun out of control since 2017. The degrading of income support systems has unquestionably proven to be massively effective in driving people into the rapidly expanding low wage sector. However, the same process, coupled with a dire lack of affordable housing, has also fuelled a huge increase in hunger and homelessness. On the US west coast, the level of destitution poses the question of how far the process of social abandonment can go before it creates utter social dislocation and rampant disease. Similarly, in the UK, ‘benefit sanctions’ and harsh measures to deny benefits to disabled people have produced shocking results. The intensification of this, with the roll out of a massively punitive ‘Universal Credit,’ system has even produced opposition with the Tory ranks. Perhaps rather tellingly, the Ford government’s plans to kill the child benefit, prompted Toronto City Hall to establish a ‘temporary family housing benefit’ to partially compensate for the provincial cut. Humanitarian concerns didn’t drive this development but, rather, a fear of the impact of the measure on the already overwhelmed homeless shelter system. Even Doug Ford might not yet be ready shrug off the spectacle of homeless children with nowhere to go in January.
Welfare Reform on the Right
The Ford government has, of course, closed the door on basic income for the present but the debate around it continues. Interestingly, when the Ontario Tories killed the BI pilot, the federal Conservative finance critic, Pierre Poilievre, wrote a piece for the National Post in opposition. No squeamish liberal, he upheld the great usefulness of basic income in implementing an assault on workers and the social infrastructure. A range of left critics of basic income, myself included, think Poilievre is correct. The point here, however, is that this debate on the right reflects some uncertainty on how to proceed with the task of refining income support as tool of the neoliberal agenda. There is a recognition that the Poor Law approach has produced results but that a highly intrusive and punitive system, poised to render applicants and recipients destitute may be outliving its usefulness. The basic income advocates on the right favour a less conditional benefit that functions as a wage top up, depresses wages and acts as a cover for the further degrading of social provision.
The Ford government, while it is not going to restore the basic income experiment, is still grappling with the problems facing right wing welfare reform. The child benefit fiasco reflects this. A further incremental lowering of benefit levels may be possible but Harris scale cuts would involve the most dramatic social consequences. This is not say that there is no threat coming from the Ford Tories. There is, as yet, no clear word on whether they will proceed with their plans to redefine disability for those applying for ODSP. If, as they have indicated, they went with the federal definition, most people who apply and are currently eligible would be turned away with horrible results. They may also proceed with other regressive measures for people on Ontario Works (OW).
Even if the Tories were to delay further regressive policy changes and simply allow the rates to fall against inflation, this would be dreadful enough. This all the more true by reason of the global economic slump that is coming down on us. A sudden sharp rise in unemployment would dramatically increase the numbers of people trying to survive on grossly inadequate social assistance rates and would result in an explosion of hunger and homelessness. Coupled with Ford’s attacks on tenant’s rights and his broader austerity measures, which impact the poor so sharply, we are confronted with a devastating increase in poverty in the period ahead and an urgent need to win a substantial increase in the adequacy of social assistance payments.
As a low wage phoney economic recovery goes over to a major and sustained downturn, we confront a deeply reactionary but weak and crisis ridden Ontario government. The harsh situation that we face will require a movement of social resistance that doesn’t allow the Tories to impose the burden of the downturn on workers and communities. That must include defeating measures of regressive welfare reform, especially the threatened attack on disabled people, and a fight for social assistance benefits that protect those who turn to them from hunger and destitution.