Forgotten During the Pandemic, the Disabled

“We are all in this together,” says Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau. Sounds good if it were true, but it is not. Although Canadian’s within all demographics have received support during the pandemic, including a $300 stipend to seniors, there is one very large demographic who have been ignored, the disabled. 

After significant intervention by disability activists, the Federal Government finally agreed to pay the disabled a one-time benefit of $600. This received Royal assent in June, yet no disabled individual has received anything yet. The Government promises to send out the checks on October 31st, however only about 25-30% of Canadians with disabilities will receive this money. 

We have always understood that the disabled live far more difficult lives than the rest of society; from accessibility issues, to ableism, to lack of jobs, lack of health care and education, lack of transportation and much lower incomes than the average. Yet the pandemic has torn a lid off the reality of the situation. The level of poverty that the disabled live in is far worse than what we understood and far more dire than the public might have known. In fact, after considerable reflection, some disabled Canadians have signed up with MAID (Medical Assistance in Dying), assisted suicide, as they believe that suicide is the best option for them. How tragic in a country as wealthy as ours. They will be rejected by MAID as they won’t qualify for assisted suicide, but that’s not the point. 

The policies around disability benefits pre-date all current Canadian governments. In fact, they pre-date the previous governments and the ones before that too. Some policies date back to the 1970’s, when the attitude towards the disabled were very different than today. For example, some policies in one Province were actually created with the caveat that the disabled had “better be grateful” for any financial help. It is for these reasons that I joined Federal Finance critic Pierre Poilievre in 2018 to launch Bill C-395, the opportunities act, to change some of the more draconian provincial policies that punished the employed disabled. The Bill failed for partisan reasons and those policies remain today. 

Although the current governments didn’t write the policies or create the current negative cultures throughout the benefit environments, they do however have a responsibility to fix it. Here in Ontario we have the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) that handles the majority of cases. There are others such as Ontario Works. For this blog post I want to focus on where we need to be in the future. 

ODSP is not working. It is not serving the interest of disabled Ontarian’s who cannot work or who are not working because employers won’t hire them. It is operated by the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services. ODSP has a massive budget of over $4B and grows at a rate of 7-8% per year, outstripping the combined increase in the year over year cost of living index as well as inflation. 

Recipients of ODSP receive, at most, $1169 per month if they even qualify for that much. The bottom line is it isn’t enough to live on, and keeps a disabled person in abject poverty with all of its ramifications, such as unsafe housing, health deterioration, dependency on food banks and in almost all cases suffer from mental health, especially depression caused by their lot in life. None of this is their own fault. They were either born disabled or joined the demographic due to an accident or illness. In fact, disability is the only demographic any of us can join at any time. 

At the beginning of the Pandemic the Federal Government created the Canadian Emergency Relief Benefit (CERB) and set the amount at $2,000 per month. This was not an arbitrary amount. There was no whimsy in the formula, it was carefully chosen by Government economists who knew that $2,000 was the Guaranteed Basic Income (GBI) required to actually live in Canada. Everyone who needed it got it…except the disabled. Instead they had to remain on a maximum of $1169 per month. 

The writings on the wall as to what is required going forward. We are a country of considerable means; we are a country that does not look out for disabled Canadians. But as a country with considerable means it is well past time to get this right. Therefore, the following needs to happen. 

First, I propose a small working committee to study reform within ODSP. When working with Economic Development Minister Brad Duguid in 2016, we asked a director of ODSP about the best way to leave the program believing she would say “Paid work”, instead she said, “to die”. She wasn’t wrong as we discovered only 0.4% of 1% of ODSP recipients ever find meaningful work. That has to change and I believe reform is the way to go. Clearly, with that comment By the ODSP director, the culture within ODSP is not conducive to better outcomes.

But it doesn’t stop there. The following needs to happen: 

  • We need a Guaranteed Livable Basic Income (GLBI) for those on ODSP of $2,000 per month as per the decision of our Federal Governments Economic advisors. 
  • There must be a much greater effort to ensure those on benefits who can work and want to work are provided the services they need to find real work for real pay. There are excellent agencies already doing this work but we need greater success. If 5,000 individuals on ODSP find a combination of full time, part time and seasonal work we save the taxpayer $78,000,000. This ensures no further taxpayer money would be required to raise the benefit amount to $2,000 for those who, through no fault of their own, cannot work. Having said that, in all cases where possible, work must be the expectation.
  • Unlike other GBI’s, a new GLBI for ODSP recipients cannot replace current supports. Those extra benefits such as health and prescription must remain in place otherwise the recipient could actually be worse off. 
  • Clawbacks, which currently punish an ODSP recipient, must be fair. There should be a reasonable threshold in which benefits end and employment income becomes the de facto sole income of the individual. 
  • All current benefit policies that punish those who live together or marry when both individuals are on ODSP have to be ended right away. This is a human rights violation. 
  • In cases where a job or career does not work out, benefits need to be automatically reinstated. There cannot be any wait times as this too is seen as further punishment for finding a job. 
  • Provinces must reform income tax laws for disabled benefit recipients who find work but stay on Government health benefits. Since these become taxable income, the amount of income tax paid by a worker who has a disability can be significantly higher than a non-disabled worker doing the same job for the same wage. This was the main reason for launching Bill C-395. 

Simplified, we must look after societies most vulnerable far better than we are today. Work for those who can, proper benefits for those who can’t, and an end to systemic poverty. 

Once that’s achieved we will truly be all in this together 

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