TORONTO - Low-income workers in Ontario stood to benefit significantly from the budget Premier Kathleen Wynne's government tabled Thursday as the Liberals announced a number of social assistance measures.
"It is the job of government to provide the ladder and a steady hand to help people climb up and achieve their full potential," Finance Minister Charles Sousa said as he delivered his budget speech in the legislature.
Many measures targeted children in low-income families.
A key move involved a plan to increase the maximum annual Ontario Child Benefit per child to $1,310 and a proposal to begin indexing the maximum benefit, and the income threshold at which it starts to be reduced, to annual increases in the Ontario Consumer Price Index in June 2015.
The development was welcomed by a number of observers.
"The Child Tax Benefit has been a huge success story for the government," said Andrea Calver of the Ontario Coalition for Better Child Care.
"It provides a direct benefit in terms of increased money every year...As costs go up most benefits should go up, so that's an important recognition — we can't keep fighting the same fight every year just to increase funding that should be indexed."
Ontario also announced the expansion of its Healthy Smiles Ontario dental program to serve 70,000 more kids, and a growing of its Student Nutritional Program from a current annual investment of some $20 million to $32 million by 2016-17.
The province also said it was trying to further expand health benefits for about 500,000 children in low-income families so that they could receive prescription drugs, vision care and mental health services. Details on the financing of that expansion however, were scarce in Thursday's budget.
Among the other notable elements announced was an increase in minimum wage to $11 an hour on June 1, with legislation planned to index it to inflation.
The government said it would also raise the income eligibility threshold for legal aid services to allow an additional one million low-income Ontarians to be able to find a lawyer. The government could not immediately say just how much that threshold would increase by.
Other measures included a plan to increase social assistance rates in 2014 by an additional one per cent for adult Ontario Works recipients and people with disabilities who receive benefits under the Ontario Disability Support Program.
The comfort allowance for low-income residents of long-term care homes will also increase by one per cent.
The government also earmarked $50 million over five years for the creation of a poverty reduction fund aimed at supporting "local solutions to poverty."
The measures were lauded by the Daily Bread Food Bank, a non-profit charity, which said it hoped the budget would pass.
"Keeping poverty reduction on the table is always the right thing to do," said executive director Gail Nyberg. "We are certainly prepared to work with all parties to see these measures implemented."
The province also plans to replace its Northern Allowance for people in remote northern communities with a new Remote Communities Allowance. It says that will mean a $50 per month increase over the current allowance for the first person, and a $25-per-month increase for each additional new family member.
The social assistance measures were seen by at least one economist as a way for Ontario to move forward.
"The government is moving ahead, not as quickly as one would like, but they are facing fiscal challenges at the same time so seeing some added progress I think is good," said TD Bank deputy chief economist Derek Burleton.
"It's part of a broad social services reform that I think is sorely needed in this province."
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