With Ontario’s election around the corner, the government is targeting spending, primarily on healthcare and infrastructure projects, in its 2022 budget tabled last week.
Although we did see some planned investments in areas outlined by United Way East Ontario as priorities the province should focus on to help our communities as we emerge from the pandemic, we do feel there were some missed opportunities.
Here, we take an in-depth look at how the budget sets out to invest in areas that urgently need support in our local communities, and where we must continue to work together to address critical gaps.
We all need a safe, healthy place to live, learn, work, and thrive. Housing is one of the most basic human needs we have, and without it, staying healthy is almost impossible. Community organizations like United Way, have been advocating for more affordable housing, particularly in rural communities and for equity deserving populations.
The Ontario government plans to invest approximately $64.2 million for affordable housing initiatives in 2022.
More than $45 million of that is for a new Streamline Development Approval Fund to help the province’s 39 largest municipalities modernize, streamline, and accelerate processes for managing and approving housing applications. A similar push for rapid housing support has been made by the federal government, but affordable housing is such a great need across our region that more is necessary.
While housing and infrastructure projects are a substantial portion of this year’s budget, leaving the responsibility of housing to the private market may leave out the most vulnerable, most of whom are often renters with very little agency. Establishing processes for enabling the participation of the non-profit sector and community would have created more sustainable and equitable housing pathways.
Residents living in East Ontario’s rural areas are experiencing isolation, and difficulty accessing basic services such as food and transportation, as the pandemic continues.
We know that investing in improvements to food distribution for rural residents with limited mobility; to strengthen the capacity of local businesses and the agri-food sector, to find affordable and sustainable solutions for food deserts; and to improve mobility through the provision of affordable and reliable transportation services will go a long way to addressing basic needs for rural residents. The province hopes to strengthen its food supply chain over the next year through a $10 million Food Security and Supply Chain Fund.
The Ontario government has also spent about $1.4 billion since 2019 to support high-speed internet access to every community in Ontario (a plan that runs until 2025), and it announced last March that it would be investing $71 million in the Eastern Ontario Regional Network to improve cellular service.
During the first two years of the pandemic, United Way East Ontario saw a growing need for devices and improved bandwidth particularly in rural and remote rural communities. We welcome the government’s commitment to supporting high-speed internet access as a step to address the digital divide.
When working with community partners in high-risk communities, we recognized early on that COVID-19 was creating ongoing disruptions in schools and was having a negative impact on learning for children and youth in our region.
The budget plans to invest $600 million through the Learning Recovery Action Plan to help students recover from disruptions of the COVID‐19 pandemic through 2023, which includes $175 million to expand access to free, publicly funded tutoring in small groups after school, during school, on weekends, and during the summer.
We are pleased that the government is investing in evidence-based after-school programs to re-engage children in learning and develop their social well-being after we witnessed the effects of classroom disruptions and remote learning on learning loss, as well as childhood social development.
We know there will be long-term mental health repercussions for children, youth and adults who have experienced extended periods of isolation and are reporting poor mental health outcomes as a result of the pandemic.
The government plans to invest $204 million to expand and implement innovative solutions, and to improve access to mental health and addiction services.
While the budget doesn’t get too specific here, we know that integrated, comprehensive mental health and crisis supports improve health outcomes overall, and that culturally appropriate, accessible programming helps address issues before they become crises.
We asked that the provincial government invest in community-based programming, including staff capacity, pay equity as well as technical and operational infrastructure for nonprofit-driven care services for long-term and sustainable recovery.
The pandemic saw an increase in gender-based violence as women and their families became more isolated and had fewer opportunities to reach out for help during the lock down. The lack of affordable housing added to the pressures that these families experienced, and so it is disappointing not see any investment to address these issues, particularly the need for investment in infrastructure, affordable housing strategies and staffing resources, including more money for staff expertise to administer shelters and support services for people fleeing gender-based violence.
Rising costs of living, job insecurity, as well as other pandemic-related circumstances continue to disproportionately affect the financial wellbeing and employment of Indigenous people, vulnerable women, youth, newcomers, racialized communities, and people with disabilities.
And yet, a year’s salary under the current minimum wage of $15 per hour (pre-tax), adds up to $29,250, significantly below what’s needed to reach a living wage in our region. Under the new minimum wage of $15.50, an individual would make $30,225. These numbers do not line up with what is estimated to be a living wage in Ottawa ($18.60 per hour), Lanark County ($18.25 per hour), Renfrew County ($17.40 per hour) or the United Counties of Prescott and Russell ($17.15 per hour).
The budget did, however, announce $1 billion annually in employment and training programs, aimed at assisting upward socio-economic mobility.
Although the province has allocated $4.89 billion in economic recovery, we had hoped to see more in terms of tactics, such as incentivizing the implementation of social procurement policies in government departments and the private sector, which would provide capacity building support to social enterprises and promote local businesses.
We will continue to look for opportunities such as social procurement and community benefit agreements within Ontario’s proposed large scale infrastructure projects.
Caregivers continue to experience high levels of burnout. Supporting them not only makes sense economically, but it also helps vulnerable people get the care they deserve in the comfort of their homes for longer.
We were pleased to see $1 billion committed to in-home care over the next three years. The funding is intended to support home care providers, address rising costs, and support recruitment and training as well as expand services for people in care.
The province also plans to set aside $100 million in additional funding over the next three years to expand community care programs such as adult day programs, meal services, transportation, assisted living services and caregiver supports.
To support individuals with dementia and their caregivers, the government plans to invest an additional $5 million per year for three years.
- $25 million over three years to support Indigenous communities, including providing Indigenous‐owned businesses and entrepreneurs with working capital to ensure continued business operations.
- Lowering childcare fees for parents by signing a $13.2 billion agreement with the federal government on March 28, 2022, in an important step towards achieving an average of $10-a-day childcare by September 2025 (with the province investing an extra $395 million to cover costs of inflation).
- Investing $45.2 million over three years into programs focusing on early intervention and providing access to specialized mental health services delivered by trauma‐ informed clinicians for first responders.
- An additional $25 million in 2022/23 to continue targeted funding to 17 high‐priority communities that were most impacted by COVID‐19 with higher case counts and lower testing rates.
While we recognize key investments in housing, home care and skills training, we would like to have seen more specific funding for programs and supports related to gender-based violence, people with disabilities, LGBTQ2S+ people, Indigenous peoples (beyond economic and limited educational supports), Black and other racialized Ontarians, and the social sector.
In our region, the United For All coalition has identified racially motivated incidents of hate and violence to be a growing problem in the communities we serve, requiring investment in strategies that address root causes. We were disappointed that the budget did not recognize this growing issue.
The budget also missed opportunities to incentivize practices such as community benefit agreements and investing in non-profit-driven care services for vulnerable communities.
Where we go from here
As social service needs skyrocket across our region, United Way East Ontario continues its work to ensure vital services can be accessed quickly, equitably, and from anywhere; that support is available for all residents, no matter their age, race, gender identity or religious belief; and that social injustices are shouted down and addressed at their root cause
Many challenges lie ahead, but we will continue to track where provincial funding lands and how it is distributed to impact the most vulnerable people in our communities.
There is much work to be done and we look forward to continuing our work with all levels of government, by prioritizing policies required to respond to the needs of our communities.