All parties should commit to lifting people with disabilities out of poverty


Canada has a remarkable opportunity to lift hundreds of thousands – perhaps millions – of people out of poverty, one that should not be passed up.
On June 22, the federal government introduced Bill C-35, an “Act to reduce poverty and to support the financial security of persons with disabilities by establishing the Canada Disability Benefit.”
The proposed legislation was, without a doubt, among the most potentially consequential in recent years.
Carla Qualtrough, in her work as Minister of Employment, work force Development and Disability Inclusion, did yeoman’s work on this file, from a vague Throne Speech promise through to the tabling of legislation. It also had broad support across party lines.
Because of the election call, Bill C-35 is in limbo.
All the major political parties, which have largely ignored the needs of the important constituency of people living with disabilities on the campaign trail, should commit to revive the legislation, regardless of who wins the vote.
Doing so is good politics, and good economics. And it’s not a partisan issue at all.
About one in five Canadians lives with a physical, developmental or psychiatric disability. That’s about six million people.
Two in every five people living in poverty in this country have a disability. That includes at least 850,000 working-age Canadians.
There are a number of reasons for this, beginning with systemic marginalization and ableism. People with disabilities are chronically unemployed and underemployed, even if they have to ability to work (and most do). Accessibility is about a lot more than wheelchair ramps.
Our social welfare system also condemns people to poverty. In 2019, a single person with a disability was eligible for annual provincial welfare payments ranging from a low of $9,843 in New Brunswick to a high of $15,293 in British Columbia.
Can you imagine trying to live on $820 a month for your rent, food and every other basic need? And, if you work, much of your earnings get clawed back.
What the Canada Disability Benefit would do is top-up the provincial payments to lift people out of abject poverty to, well, able-to-eat-lunch levels of poverty.
It would essentially be a guaranteed basic-income program for people with disabilities.
Of course, the devil is in the details.
Disability Without Poverty, a grassroots group that formed to promote a user-friendly design for the Canadian Disability Benefit, notes that there are three key questions that need to be answered: What will the amount of the monthly benefit be? Who will be eligible? How do you ensure there is no clawback of existing benefits?
Poverty is so rooted in the disability community that for the CDB to be beneficial it has to be a significant dollar amount.
The government has said the Canada Disability Benefit would be modelled after the Guaranteed Income Supplement, a program which provides up to $1,175 monthly for low-income seniors, in addition to, not instead of, Old Age Security. The GIS-OAS combo has been a boon for seniors.
A similar approach could mean a doubling of income for some people with disabilities, which is appropriate and overdue.
Eligibility is a point of contention for many programs. Obviously, the CDB payment would be needs-based, or income-based. But the more contentious issue is determining who actually has a disability (a “severe and prolonged impairment,” according to the law).
Absurdly, the determination is done principally by the Canada Revenue Agency.
The key for accessing financial aid and tax breaks is being eligible for the Disability Tax Credit. It’s a small credit of $1,299 that, ironically, is useless for most people with disabilities because they have no taxable income.
But the credit opens (or shuts) the door to dozens of tax related programs, including the Registered Disability Savings Plan (a tremendous initiative of Stephen Harper’s government) and the Child Disability Benefit.
Finally, it’s essential that a federal boost in payments does not result in provinces clawing back those amounts. That would be perverse.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the new Canadian Disability Benefit is that it has made explicit the link between disability and poverty, which became more severe during the pandemic, and thus more important to resolve.
Far too many people, because of their physical, developmental and psychiatric differences, are being disenfranchised and afforded second-class citizenship because they don’t have the means to live their lives to their full potential.
A little boost of income isn’t going to wholly remedy that reality, but it would be a good start.

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