The buck-a-beer challenge Ontario deserves
I would like to propose a twist on Ontario’s controversial buck-a-beer plan.
The new Ontario government has cut social assistance rates, slashing in half a 3 per cent planned rate increase, keeping the maximum allowance for a single person on Ontario Works at $732 a month.
At the same time, the new government is offering non-financial incentives to brewers willing to sell beers for $1 a bottle. This is Premier Doug Ford’s buck-a-beer challenge.
Let’s imagine an alternative scenario: The newly elected premier revokes the previous government’s promise to increase social assistance rates by 3 per cent, replacing it with a 10 per cent raise.
The minister of Children, Community and Social Services explains the much-needed raise will be funded through a $1 additional tax on every litre of beer sold in Ontario — the buck-a-beer levy.
Beer lovers are asked to pay 34 cents more per bottle or 50 cents more per pint, abetting folks to drink a bit more gently.
In return, close to one million Ontarians living in poverty — individuals, families, and children — get to live with a little more dignity.
Although this political scenario is highly hypothetical, the math adds up. Ontarians consumed 785 million litres in 2017. In the same year, the Ontario government spent $7.82 billion on social assistance payments to a monthly average of 598,000 households (923,000 beneficiaries). A $1 levy on a litre of beer could increase this budget envelope by 10 per cent.
In reality, a dedicated revenue source — such as a beer levy — is not an optimal way of funding social programs. And shaming people into contributing to poverty alleviation is unlikely to yield the desired outcomes. I, for one, like my beer cold and guilt-free.
The example is merely an invitation for us to pause and think about the value of a strong safety net.
Ontario’s social assistance clients are a diverse lot. They include: working adults who don’t qualify for employment insurance, people struggling to enter the job market, injured workers without disability benefits, members of low-income families who care for young children, the elderly, and the ill, and people whose health prevents them from holding a full-time job.
Social assistance recipients are between 16 and 65 years of age. They are male, female, and non-binary. Canadian-born, Indigenous, and immigrant. White, black, and brown. Christian, Muslim, Jewish, from other religious affiliations, and atheists. Some didn’t finish high school, others completed a doctoral degree.
Finally, social assistance recipients include tall, short, and mid-height Ontarians.
We all fit the profile. And that’s because social assistance has been built as a collective safety net. It is there for all of us.
Some of us will never need it. Others will have their lives depend on it when the job they trained for becomes redundant, when their doctor says the name of a rare hereditary disease, or when an icy sidewalk changes the course of their lives.
I wish such things never happened, but they do. Luckily, we have been wise to invest in a collective safety net.
But we need to decide whether we want a net that catches people when they fall — one that keeps them alive and living with dignity, or barely any net at all — where we let people fall flat, face-first into deplorable living conditions.
For decades we have had something akin to the latter, and the new Ontario government just made it worse, leaving us all at the mercy of luck.
And what is the government offering in return? Cheap beer. I love a good beer, but I will let this one pass. And I believe a great many Ontarians will too.
Why? Because what concerns us is the quality and affordability of the public services we rely on. We want the luxury of being able to sit back, after a hard day at work, enjoy the drink of our choice and not worry about job security, the well-being of our children, or the comfort of our elderly parents.
How to justly raise the revenues to pay for the public services Ontarians need — that’s our real challenge.
Ricardo Tranjan is a senior researcher with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives’ Ontario office.