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Anti-poverty activist laments the loss of Ontario’s basic income program

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Anti-poverty activist Laura Cattari stands in front of the Aron Kodesh at Temple Anshe Sholom in Hamilton, Ont. (Steve Arnold photo)

HAMILTON, ONT. – Anger, tempered by Jewish values, drive anti-poverty activist Laura Cattari, and both attributes have been exercised heavily in recent weeks, as her movement has gained an important federal victory and suffered a heart-breaking provincial betrayal.

Cattari, a long-time resident of Hamilton, Ont., and a Toronto native, came to anti-poverty work after a chronic illness ended her once-promising career in technology and forced her onto disability insurance under the Canada Pension Plan (CPP). While she’s grateful to have a social safety net, she said that the system doesn’t pay enough to allow a person to live with security.

“I would never have gotten into this kind of work if I had not become ill,” she said. “Now I feel I live a complete and more authentic life than before I got ill.”

As well as her anger over the “isolating and dehumanizing” effects of poverty in North America, Cattari is also guided by the values of her Jewish faith – teachings like the biblical phrase, “Justice, justice shall you pursue,” and the Torah’s counsel to leave the corners of fields unharvested, so their crops can be picked by the needy.

“Those ideas really resonate with me,” she said. “To live ethically like that makes me feel more in touch with the world.”

Driven by those forces, Cattari has been at the centre of two recent developments in the anti-poverty world. The first was a victory scored in July, when Ontario Superior Court Judge Edward Morgan struck down federal tax rules that punished charities for trying to influence public policy.

READ: ONT. POLITICIANS, JEWISH COMMUNITY, TALK TO JEWS LIVING IN POVERTY

That court challenge was mounted by Canada Without Poverty, the lobby group of which Cattari is president. It attacked a Harper-era policy that allowed the tax department to strip charitable status from groups that spend more than 10 per cent of their time and resources trying to change government policy.

“In our case, that meant the difference between operating and not operating,” she said. “Without Canada Without Poverty, we wouldn’t have a voice at the federal level.”

Previously known as the National Anti-Poverty Organization, Canada Without Poverty has been registered as a charitable organization for 43 years. It is governed by a board of directors who all have lived experience with poverty. The group operates with an annual budget of only $300,000 and losing the ability to issue tax receipts for donations would have been devastating.

For Cattari, the case was about the freedom of groups like hers to speak out about a system that keeps people in poverty.

“We want well-thought-out solutions here and we need to speak freely to get them,” she said.

The court decision still bars charities from partisan activities, such as backing particular candidates or parties, but allows them to promote policies such as the adoption of a national anti-poverty strategy.

We want well-thought-out solutions here and we need to speak freely to get them.
– Laura Cattari

The Crown has until Aug. 15 to appeal the decision.

The sweetness of that victory, however, was turned to bitterness this month, when the provincial government broke an election promise and cancelled Ontario’s basic income pilot program. The action was especially hurtful to Cattari, because not only had she served on a task force that helped design the program, she was also receiving the special payment.

The basic income program provided a single person with an annual payment of up to $16,989 in tax-free government transfers. Couples got up to $24,027 and people with disabilities got another $6,000. Payments dropped by 50 cents for every extra dollar the recipient earned and by a full dollar if the additional income came from the CPP or Employment Insurance.

The pilot program was helping 4,000 people in four test cities, including 1,000 people in Hamilton. Premier Doug Ford’s newly elected Progressive Conservative government axed the program, with Social Services Minister Lisa MacLeod claiming that the “project is failing.”

In a news release announcing the move, MacLeod said it would allow the government “to focus resources on more proven approaches.”

At the same time, a planned increase in welfare rates was cut in half, from three per cent to 1.5.

For Cattari, the loss of the program is about more than just a bit of extra income for herself, it’s really about the loss of a chance to test out a new way of breaking the cycle of poverty.

For me, living at or below the poverty line for 15 years has meant a lot of debt.
– Laura Cattari

At its heart, she said, the current welfare system leaves people in a state of constant financial struggle, in which any unexpected expense in the middle of the month can leave them unable to buy groceries at the end of it.

“It meant that if the toilet broke or the bank charged me an extra fee, I didn’t have to go hungry,” she said of the basic income program. “It provided me a little bit of security I haven’t had for years, it allowed me to think ahead a little.”

That freedom to think ahead allowed some of the pilot program participants to return to school, seeking the new skills they need to improve their chances of landing the jobs that could help them break the cycle of poverty.

“For me, living at or below the poverty line for 15 years has meant a lot of debt, but with this help, I could pay that debt and have money for better food,” she said. “It meant having a little disposable income to buy dinner now and then for the friends who have supported me all these years.”