Guest post by Trevor Manson and Devorah Kobluk
Broad popular support but no political movement
Nearly nine-in-10 (89%) of Canadians are in favour of a Canadian Disability Benefit (CDB). An overwhelming majority also agree that the current supports and benefits available to people with disabilities are inadequate. Popular opinion is on side with the disability community that has clearly articulated the need for increased income support. This is particularly true now, with inflation reaching levels not seen in decades and housing costs soaring.
Despite the broad support for a CDB, people with disabilities are still twice as likely to live in poverty, often in deep poverty (25% or more below the poverty line). This all-too-pervasive reality continues because disability assistance programs are grossly inadequate in every province.
In Ontario, the only provincial program to which un/underemployed disabled folks can turn is Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP). An unattached single who qualifies for the ODSP receives $1169 per month. This means people on ODSP live 40% below the poverty line, which makes it near impossible to pay for the basic necessities of life. Ontario is not alone. All provinces have essentially abdicated themselves of their responsibility for disabled communities.
When Abigail (not their real name) applied for ODSP in 2015 following three months in hospital, she knew nothing about the program. She had no income from the previous two years because while dealing with her health issues, she had lived off the savings she had built over her career. A social worker at the hospital helped her with the application process. Without that help, she is not sure she would have been successful navigating the complex application criteria.
Abigail was horrified when she started learning about the 800+ rules that make up ODSP, one of which is in regard to asset limits. Even though she qualified for the program medically, she was told that she did not qualify financially because she had “too much money.” The ODSP intake worker pointed to some modest investments that she had diligently built up over the years, including (non-locked in) RRSPs, GICs and her TFSA. According to ODSP rules at that time, the maximum amount of assets someone on ODSP could have was $5,000, or two-three months of modest living in Toronto.
To qualify for ODSP, Abigail would first have to liquidate her investments and spend all her savings. In other words, to qualify, she would first have to be in a state of destitution. Even though the asset limit has since increased to $40,000, many are forced, as Abigail was, to spend their savings meant to prevent poverty in the future, to qualify for the ODSP program that barely provides enough income on which to survive.
Abigail has been on ODSP for 7 years and survives “one day at a time.” After she pays her rent, utilities and her cellphone bill, she has $7 per day left for food. Sometimes she does not make it to the end of the month and has to spend two hours on public transit to get to her closest food bank. ODSP covers most of her medications , but she cannot afford dietary supplements recommended by her doctor or disability services like physiotherapy that would significantly increase her quality of life.
She hears about the increase of ‘renovictions’ and with the current costs for housing, wonders how she would survive if that happened to her. Like many ODSP clients, she sometimes receives letters from ODSP directing her to submit various documents, and if she is unable to do it on time, she is fearful they will cut off her benefits. ODSP is a degrading, frustrating and undignified process. She writes letters to her MPP hoping things will change. She still cannot believe that she is living in deep poverty with no end in sight and wants people to know, if it could happen to her, it could happen to anyone.
Making change through the ballot box
Abigail’s situation occurs in many provinces, but it is not the fault of provincial programs alone. The end of the 50-50 cost share agreement for social assistance under the Canada Assistance Plan (CAP) in 1996 left a significant gap in funding for social assistance. It is time the federal government return to the table to shoulder their share of the responsibility to make sure that people with disabilities are not forced into poverty.
The hope is the CDB will do that. However, waiting for the CDB is not an acceptable option. Though CDB legislation is expected to be re-introduced by June 2022, the bill will still have to be debated, passed, designed and implemented, which could conceivably take a number of years.
Voters cannot continue to turn their head the other way and allow austerity mandates while leaving it to the churches, charities, and hospitals to deal with the repercussions of poverty. To lift lift people with disabilities out of poverty, voters must take their values to the polls and support candidates who are committed to ending disability poverty. This must happen not only on June 2nd, but every time a ballot is cast and at any level of government. This is what is needed if we are ever going to make eradicating disability poverty a reality.
Trevor Manson is Secretary Co-chair with the ODSP Action Coalition and brings a voice of lived experience to various advocacy groups including as a client member of the CPP-D Client/Stakeholder Roundtable.
Devorah Kobluk is Senior Policy Analyst at the Income Security Advocacy Centre. She focuses on social assistance and income security benefits and has a special interest in policy related to people with disabilities.