Hunter Gatherers in Toronto: “What a long strange trip it’s been”

 “As soon as the rent is paid, first thing I do is stock up on food, which generally means I’ve got three days’ worth of food. For the rest of the month I hit soup kitchens, food banks. And I’m allowed to hit the food bank four times a month.  The clothes exchanges provide the clothing, but the problem is, because I haven’t been eating healthy for the last ten years, I’m pretty underweight. So finding clothes that fit, pants especially, I’m currently taking like a 26/30 which is almost impossible to find.”

– 59 year old single male social assistance recipient in Toronto


A hunter-gatherer is defined as follows by

“A member of a group of people who subsist by hunting, fishing, or foraging in the wild.”[1]

Single welfare recipients in the city of Toronto have become modern hunter-gatherers   that  subsist for up to three weeks per month foraging in the ‘wilds’ of Toronto’s soup kitchens, food banks and clothes exchanges.

Like hunters and gatherers before the advent of agriculture, it is an outdoors life that depends now on a lot of walking and biking. Like the 59 year old male quoted above, single welfare recipients often have ruddy complexions from a life outdoors. And they are often undernourished.

The single social assistance rate in Ontario goes up by $25 a month on November 1, 2015 to $681, a 3.8% increase. But if the single rate had kept up with inflation since 1995, it would now be $962 a month. And had it been kept up with inflation after the 21.6% rate cut in 1995, it would now be $754 a month.

The designated amount for shelter as of November 1, 2015 is $376 a month and if we assume for a moment that a $376 a month rental is possible in Toronto, the amount left over will soon be $305 a month for everything else.

The 59 year old welfare recipient in my example pays $500 a month in rent and will soon pay a payday lender $21 to cash his cheque. His ruddy appearance regularly results in him being stopped by security when he enters a bank.

This will leave him $160 in cash to pay for everything else.

I recently wrote about the 20 year anniversary of the welfare diet, a diet that now costs almost $190 a month[2]. The diet is highly flawed. It is not nutritious and cannot sustain a minimally healthy lifestyle. He also can’t afford it.

A TTC pass to look for work and to travel about town costs $141 a month[3] . Our 59 year old cannot even dream of owning one.

From time to time, he fills out a participation agreement that attests he will attempt to get work. The lowest paid service entry positions are not available to him as any public facing job has basic requirements for appearance and behaviour which are hard to meet if you are constantly hungry. Besides, 30% of Canada’s cashiers have a university or college degree; so the competition is tough.

On October 26, 2015, Toronto Public Health presents its costs of a nutritious food basket to the Board of Health in Etobicoke[4]. The relevant presentations are footnoted here.[5]

In one of their scenarios, they point out how a single Ontario works recipient would need $280 a month to consume a minimally nutritious diet. For our 59 year old, the figure is somewhat lower at $275 a month.

Before the rate cuts of 1995, the single welfare rate was $663 a month. On November 1, it will go from $656 to $681 a month surpassing the $663 amount for the first time on the 20th anniversary of the cuts. Core inflation since 1995 has increased by 45% and the welfare diet has gone up by 107%[6].

These are just numbers. It means something different on the ground. Our single 59 year old cannot now afford transit and cannot afford a bad diet, let alone a minimally affordable nutritious diet.  As he puts it:

“I’ve never been able to panhandle. It just …I just can’t do it. A day in the life for me means a lot of travelling around. I’m doing it because I’ve learned to cut back on my needs. I’m used to going hungry.  My health in the last five years?  I’ve   aged ten years in the last five years, basically. So it’s like I’m stuck with riding my bike, that’s it.”

“I mean ideally I should weigh 155 pounds, and I weigh anywhere between 125 to 130 at any given time. So any extra money would definitely go on food. I mean I still spend money at No Frills or Price Choppers now, but I got to be very careful about what I spend there. So like pasta, I go to Dollar Stores; things like that.   Spices? It’s the Dollar Store.”


For Toronto’s new cohort of hunter gatherer’s, a raucously funny exchange in the Ontario legislature must have a curious ring to it now. Exactly 20 years ago today, MPP Dwight Duncan (Windsor-Walkerville) stood in the Ontario legislature and had the following observations[7]:

“I’d like to speak about bologna today.

Some people in Mike Harris’s Ontario are finding aspects of the Common Sense Revolution a little hard to stomach. So to assist the weak at heart in digesting the Tories’ recipe for disaster, the Minister of Community and Social Services has served up a $90-a-month meal plan, which at less than $1 per meal consists primarily of a lot of wishful thinking.

Despite reports that there is little value in the Tsubouchi diet, either nutritionally or otherwise, the Premier himself has shown support for the plan by stating that he knows what it’s like to live on a diet of baked beans and bologna. That’s why he worked so hard to get ahead.

Well, flavourful tales of the Premier once living on a lemonade budget have turned sour by accounts of a younger Mike Harris’s champagne lifestyle. It now appears that bologna was never a popular dish in the Harris household, which, according to some sources, resembled the Royal York at dinnertime. As a result, today the Premier’s eating his words along with his fictional diet.

The Premier’s right about one thing, however: He’s full of baloney. We just wish he and his Minister of Community and Social Services would stop serving it up to the province of Ontario. We find the whole thing unpalatable.”

And unpalatable as it may have been, it would take a $73 a month increase to the single welfare rate to get us back to where it was following the 21.6% cut that took place eight days after Mr. Duncan made his remarks.

What a long strange trip it’s been!


Js/oct.24, 2015