In the wake of the recent ice storm that hit southern Ontario and Toronto particularly hard, the Ontario government decided to provide compensation to those who saw their food spoiled because of the prolonged power outage. Provincial money along with donations from the private sector was used to provide grocery gift cards in Toronto at Ontario Works centers. Individuals were eligible for $50 cards and families for $100 cards. Over a two-day period, about 500 thousand dollars in gift cards were distributed to more than 5,000 Toronto families and individuals. The result? Long lines and distribution centers rapidly running out of the cards that resulted in disappointment, anger and frustration.
It is important and necessary to assist those struck by a natural disaster. However, one has to wonder why the haste in providing such a limited, quick and poorly thought out compensation program. It is not a great surprise that the offer of free gift cards to individuals claiming spoilage, and providing merely proof of identity and an address as criteria for getting the cards, might generate an unexpected overwhelming demand. As well, the program was only in Toronto. There were power outages in areas outside of Toronto also, though the provincial government has announced the program would be expanded to communities outside Toronto. I would rethink that decision.
The ice storm knocked out electrical power. About 300,000 customers in the GTA lost power. Quite a few outside the GTA also lost power. Some had their power out for a few hours. Quite a few saw their power out for days. And of course, many saw no interruption to their power at all. If there is to be a program for compensating people who lost their power, surely those whose power was out for days are more deserving of some type of compensation than those who were inconvenienced for an hour or two? How do gift cards for food spoilage differentiate between these differing cases? Do we assume that everyone asking for a gift card had their power knocked out for days?
The most dramatic impact of the ice storm for many was the loss of power with the consequences of the outage correlated with the length of time power was out. If the Ontario government truly wants to compensate, surely the help can be better provided via rebates on Hydro bills with the amount of the rebate geared towards the length of time the customer went without power. Tying the compensation to a program that is based on the amount of time the customer went without power seems to me at least a better criteria than handing out gift cards on a first come first serve basis. Moreover, the hydro companies have a pretty good idea of exactly which customers were affected and for how long which allows the compensation to be more appropriately targeted.
The premier was quoted as saying; “I believe it is better to do something than to do nothing.” Given the gift card program is probably not that expensive for the Ontario government when compared to a broader based compensation program done through hydro rebates, it was a cheap and visible way of doing "something." However, I would suggest that when it comes to public policy, doing something that is poorly thought out is sometimes as bad as doing nothing.