A new report examining data from Ontario over a six-year period has found that the factors that increase food bank visits the most are rent increases and changes to disability benefits, helping to describe how concrete policy changes could help those living on the edge.
A Wednesday press release explained that when the researchers’ findings are extrapolated into the future, there would be 73,776 additional visits each year to food banks in Toronto if the rent increased by only $30 a month.
A $1 increase in the minimum wage could reduce the number of food bank visits per year in Toronto by 37,000, and providing an additional $15 per month to those enrolled in the Ontario Disability Support Program would be associated with 54,000 visits fewer food banks per year in Toronto and 273,000 fewer across Ontario. , the statement said.
“The most important message I would like people to take away from this is that food banks are part of the social safety net, and when you see people using food banks more and more, that’s a signal. that there’s something wrong with your income support programs,” University of Calgary economics professor and one of the study’s authors, Ron Kneebone, told CTVNews.ca during of a telephone interview.
“They are not generous enough. They don’t work for people.
Kneebone explained that while previous studies have looked at the causes of food insecurity in general, few have focused on what specifically affects the frequency of food bank visits, because food bank data is not publicly collected.
“The food bank has to say, ‘Well, here’s our data, you can use it’ and so they did,” he said.
Researchers from the School of Public Policy at the University of Calgary looked at data provided by the Daily Bread Food Bank in Toronto between January 2014 and March 2020, during which there was a 53% increase in visits to food banks.
The researchers tracked the number of monthly visits to the food bank and then compared this increase to various factors that may have affected residents’ finances.
Kneebone explained that when people think of the social safety net, they tend to think only of welfare programs such as welfare provided directly by the government.
“Food banks are privately funded here, they depend on people’s donations and it has nothing to do with governments,” he said. “What we are trying to show in the document is that what the government does has an impact on food banks and the reason for that is that people who use food banks are people with very limited incomes. They’re hanging on and it doesn’t take much to push them over the edge.
The researchers looked at market rent throughout the study period in Toronto, focusing on one-bedroom apartments since two-thirds of those using food banks are either single parents or parents alone, according to their data. When rent prices were charted alongside food bank visits, there was a general upward trend for both.
Kneebone said it shows we either need to make sure incomes keep pace and grow as rent continues to rise, or we need to invest more in rental support programs to help low-income people.
Rent support programs such as homes priced at a specific percentage of a person’s income instead of a fixed price they cannot afford could go a long way in preventing people from relying on banks food, he added.
“You don’t go to a food bank as your first option,” he said. “You are trying to save yourself. You turn the heat down, you skip meals, etc., and then you’re forced to go to a food bank.
The minimum wage also appears to be related to the frequency of food bank visits, the researchers found.
“The large minimum wage increase introduced in January 2018 interrupts what appears to be a generally negative correlation between actual minimum wage and food bank visits,” the study says.
DISABILITY SUPPORTS FADING
There was one factor that was most closely correlated with an increase in food bank visits.
“The biggest thing driving people to use food banks in Toronto is the declining purchasing power of disability income,” Kneebone said.
Researchers mapped food bank increases alongside changes in the amount of income support available each year for a single person receiving Ontario Works (OW) or Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) benefits. .
The report noted that 60% of those who access food banks in the Toronto area have income support as their main source of income, with half receiving benefits through OW and the other half through from ODSP.
It was precisely disability benefits that were most strongly associated with increased food bank visits: as food bank visits increased between 2014 and 2020, the amount of help provided to a single person per the ODSP bias was steadily decreasing.
“Every time a government does something to tighten or cut welfare programs, it impacts food banks,” Kneebone said.
Government inaction can also have the same impact, as welfare programs often do not keep up with inflation, he pointed out.
“So when prices go up, the purchasing power of welfare [programs] fall, and all of a sudden people have to go to food banks because their budgets are getting tighter and tighter.
Kneebone said disability benefit programs vary widely from province to province in Canada, noting that in Alberta, his home province, the program is more generous than Ontario’s. However, he added that “generally the level of income support for people with disabilities is quite low”.
One of the big issues Canadians with disabilities face is that their overall expenses are higher than the rest of the population on average, Kneebone explained, giving the example of how someone in a wheelchair will have a lot more harder than she would have to find an apartment that is accessible to them.
“Poverty measures that governments like to use underestimate the true poverty line for people with disabilities,” he said. “For them, the income you need to stay out of poverty is much higher than for someone who doesn’t have a disability.”
The results of the study show how government policies can have a direct impact on those living in precarious poverty.
“When the purchasing power of welfare and minimum wage goes down, food bank use goes up, when people have difficulty finding jobs, food bank use goes up, all of that is obvious. for me,” Kneebone said. “And the other thing that’s important from there is that there are solutions to that and the obvious solution from a public policy perspective is to increase the incomes of people who depend on social systems. .”
Food banks are supposed to help in an emergency. But when you see food bank activity increasing, it’s the proverbial canary in a coal mine, he explained.
“When the canary dies, or when the food bank business increases, it tells you that your social supports are not generous enough and you need to think about how I could change them to stop people depending on food banks,” said Kneebone.
Neil Hetherington, CEO of Daily Bread Food Bank, said in a press release that the study shows how governments have the ability to ‘bankrupt food banks’ if they focus on policies to reduce rents and disability benefits.
“Failure to prioritize these will unfortunately drive more people to our doorstep as they have nowhere to turn when their income cannot cover the cost of living,” he said. declared.
The study was limited in that it only looked at data from a Toronto-based food bank, but the caveats this study accompanies are ones that would be wise to heed across the country, said Kneebone.
“I would bet that, in fact, food bank visits are increasing across Canada,” he added. “And the reason for that is that incomes are not keeping up with inflation and especially rents are rising very quickly.”