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The COVID-19 Disability Benefit: Open to Some, Closed to Others

The COVID-19 pandemic has been described as the great revealer: it emphasizes how vulnerable many in Canadian society are – including people with disabilities (PWDs).

The Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) is intended to provide “temporary income support to workers who have stopped working related to COVID-19”.

However, one of its eligibility criteria is that the applicant have “employment and/or self-employment income of at least $5,000 in 2019 or in the 12 months prior to the date of their application”.

Even outside of a pandemic, finding – and keeping work – is a very real challenge for many PWDs – and the challenge is only compounded for PWDs who are women, who are racialized, and others. As a result, many PWDs rely on provincial social assistance – which is well below poverty levels – to survive.

For many PWDs on provincial social assistance, they don’t qualify for CERB. This is what some call “a slap in the face”: a single person on the Ontario Disability Support Program receives – at most – $1169 a month, a far cry from the $2000 a month on the CERB. The situation is even worse for those on provincial “welfare” systems, such as Ontario Works.

For those PWD social assistance recipients who can access the CERB, the federal government has left it up to the provinces to determine how they would treat CERB funds. Ontario opted to treat the CERB as income; this means that recipients remain eligible for ODSP and associated supports – but that $900 of the CERB amount is clawed back (recipients keep $1100 of the CERB).

Some provinces – such as the Atlantic provinces and Saskatchewan – are worse, in that they claw back CERB amount dollar for dollar. Ottawa claims it is opposed to such clawbacks – but has made no such requirements that they be removed.

British Columbia is an outlier in all of this: it makes no clawbacks – at least for now. Indeed, for those who are not eligible for the CERB, it provides recipients with an additional $300 a month. Ontario provides an additional benefit of one-third that amount to single persons – $100 – at least until July, provided that they apply for it.

While some might argue that some CERB-eligible social assistance recipients may “come out ahead” of CERB recipients without disabilities, PWDs in Canada face substantial additional costs that persons without disabilities do not face. PWD recipients of social assistance – already poor prior to the pandemic – have fewer supports to rely on going forward.

Yet many PWD social assistance recipients who are not eligible for the CERB must do with even less – at a time of higher expenses including delivery costs, as many recipients are immunocompromised and cannot bear the risks of shopping themselves.

In the current minority Parliament, the federal government agreed to enhanced support to persons with disabilities.

Enter a one-time payment of $600 for persons who have the Disability Tax Credit – presumed to support 1.2 million Canadians at a cost of $548 million.

Notwithstanding the appropriateness of such an amount (it is a one-time payment, after all), there’s an even bigger problem: the DTC is quite restrictive.

It excludes people with episodic disabilities in that it requires that the disability be “be present all or substantially all of the time”. Its uptake amongst those who are eligible is also quite low: it is estimated at around 40%. The reasons for this are varied, but include: limited awareness of the DTC and the complexity of the application process – to say nothing of barriers low-income people face filing taxes in the first place.

Also vexing about the DTC is how it is non-refundable: it is of greater benefit to those with higher incomes. While it provides no/low-income earners with access to a “disability supplement attached to the Working Income Tax Benefit of up to $508 [subject to potential clawbacks]” and access to bonds under the Registered Disability Savings Plan, it is of little value in terms of direct cash transfers in the short term.

This means that PWDs with high incomes may receive the $600 payment – provided they are eligible for the DTC. Low-income, eligible persons, however, receive the same amount, despite higher financial needs.

This is not to suggest that higher incomes should not get some support – indeed, they face high disability-related costs too, but that some progressivity – and broader criteria – could have gone a long way.

When designing a policy or initiative, it is helpful to ask questions such as:

  • Whom is the policy intended to help?

  • Whom might it exclude?

Presumably, the federal government opted for an “efficient” way of disbursing funds via DTC eligibility, when it could also have provided funds to the provinces, requiring them to designate them for social assistance recipients directly, including those with disabilities. It could also have enhanced benefits for Canada Pension Plan-Disability recipients – whether eligible for DTC-based funding or not.

Finally, it could have made changes that have been proposed by House of Commons committees before: making the DTC refundable – and therefore of greater value to those at the lower end of the income scale – and including episodic and other disabilities currently not covered.

By attaching eligibility for the $600 benefit to the DTC as is, the federal government has left many PWDs out – many of them on social assistance, ineligible for CERB – who are in dire need of more support.

Looking back at what (may) be ahead: Reduced non-income benefits for recipients of ODSP

As I wrote in my last post, details of the Ontario government’s reform of social assistance – and the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP), specifically – are unclear.

A large anxiety around social assistance reform is understandably focused around  assistance rates – that is, the actual dollars recipients receive.

Yet as Ricardo Tranjan of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives writes in the Behind the Numbers blog, “It appears that the current government’s plan is more sophisticated but equally perverse to that of the previous Harris government: it aims to push social assistance recipients with disabilities into a cheaper program with fewer supports.”

But what are “cheaper programs”? Here, a little history goes a long way to understanding what may be ahead.

As of December 31st 2012, the (then) Liberal government of Dalton McGuinty ceased the Community Start Up and Maintenance Benefit (CSUMB). This was in addition to the removal of payment of some home repair costs (at the same time), and the prior removal of the Back to School and Winter Clothing Allowance back in 2008.

The CSUMB enabled single recipients to receive $799 and families $1500 every two years for benefits such as establishing a place to live and preventing eviction and the shut off of essential utilities, among others.

In its place, 50 percent of the funds were disbursed to municipalities. The Province also provided one-time funding of $42 million; this was rolled into the Community Homelessness Prevention Initiative that, “[Combines] funding from former separate housing and homelessness programs into a single flexible program [that] can be used [...] to address local priorities and better meet the needs of individuals and families who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless in their local communities.”

Yet as the Income Security Advocacy Centre cautioned at the time, “There is no guarantee that the money will be paid in direct assistance to people who need the funds. Municipalities may decide that their own local needs are different, and use the money to pay for shelter programs, seniors housing, or other, equally important programs – but not for direct payments.”

The policy direction away from direct payments is one that has long frustrated anti-poverty activists – which is why there was some measured optimism regarding the now-cancelled Basic Income Pilot.

While I do not wish to suggest that a basic income is a silver bullet, it does point to the value in providing people with lower incomes additional funds that they may use to meet their most pressing needs.

So, if CSUMB is lost, there’s nothing else to lose, right?

Not exactly.

There are a range of other direct benefits that are currently available to recipients of ODSP. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Employment and Training Start Up Benefit (ESUB) & Up -Front Child Care Benefit – Up to $500/month every 12 months to “help recipients begin and change employment” and reimbursement of “up-front” and “reasonably neccessary” childcare costs

  • Heating costs, “If the heating costs alone exceed the maximum shelter allowance the amount payable will be the actual cost of heating.”

  • Payment of the “consumer’s contribution” and professional assessment to receive eligible assistive devices under the Assistive Devices Program

  • Employment Transition Benefit – A lump sum of $500 for “Recipients who exit Income Support due to income from employment, training, or operation of a business”.

It remains to be seen if these will remain benefits directed to recipients, or disbursed to separate programs with their own varying (and potentially watered-down) criteria.

Other benefits (such as drug and dental, among others) may be merged into “health spending accounts”. As I noted in my last post, “[A] block [grant] can be good – provided the the money lasts”.

As it stands, recipients are entitled to various benefits.

Now, the government may be more selective about what those benefits are, circumstances in which recipients may access them, and funding available to provide these benefits.

Reform may, in the end, be a matter of “robbing Peter to pay Paul”.

Details are still unclear, it’s true – but the past can be a helpful compass, too.