By Michael J. Prince
As the COVID-19 pandemic endures, the federal government continues to announce new programs to support the financial security and well-being of working Canadians. But not everyone is covered by them.
The Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), introduced in April and scheduled to end in late September, will provide $76 billion to nearly 8.6 million applicants.
With this program, imbalances and biases in income security decisions were starkly exposed. Governments clearly expected people with disabilities to live on disability income benefits (such as the Canada Pension Plan Disability and provincial social assistance) of an amount — in most cases — of half or less than the $2,000 a month provided by the CERB.
If that was the minimum amount necessary for some Canadians to live with dignity during the pandemic, why was it not for others who face additional living costs related to impairments and health conditions? If anything, should those people not receive slightly more than their peers?
In the immediate term, Employment Insurance (EI) is being altered to enable easier eligibility and wider coverage than before.
The Trudeau government has also announced three new temporary benefits: the Canada Recovery Benefit for self-employed workers and other workers not eligible for EI; the Canada Recovery Caregiving Benefit for people unable to work because they need to care for a child, other family member or dependent; and the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit for those who are sick themselves or have to self-isolate because of COVID-19.
However, for working age adults with disabilities these benefits provide little comfort.
The expanded EI and these three new benefits are not available to disabled, working-age Canadians and others who worked less than 120 hours in the past 52 weeks, who are unemployed, not on unpaid leave, or not in the labour force at all. Many are discouraged from the labour force due to the presence of attitudinal and material barriers and the absence of accommodations and inclusive workplaces.
Among working-age people with disabilities, more than 1.5 million, or 41 per cent, are unemployed or out of the labour market entirely. Among those with severe disabilities, this rate increases to over 60 per cent.
That some will get a one-time federal payment of $600 is too little, too late. This meagre one-time federal payment is cold comfort, exposing once again inequities and systemic gaps in income security policies toward people with disabilities.
The need is clear for a new federal income benefit for working-age Canadians with disabilities.
The case for a Canada disability benefit is not tied to the pandemic response and recovery, although this may prove an appropriate political context in which to enact one. Rather, it is linked to Canada’s commitments under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the Accessible Canada Act of 2019.
Any new federal benefit for disabled Canadians must be ongoing social protection for individuals and families, not just a temporary program.
To be adequate and to recognize the everyday costs for people living with significant disabilities, a Canada disability benefit amount should at least be $600 per week, indexed to the cost of living and adjusted quarterly like seniors’ benefits. Depending on the eligibility criteria, the annual cost could be $5 billion to $6 billion.
Recipients of this new disability benefit should be allowed to maintain their current health supplements and, like the Canada Recovery Benefit, be able to work and supplement their income through earnings –– with a generous earnings exemption and investments in accessible employment services and inclusive workplaces.
A national disability benefit would be the next great step in providing an adequate basic income for a group too long overlooked by governments and too long forced to struggle for dignity. Of course, many details need to be discussed in consultation with disability organizations and other groups across the country.
This benefit is long overdue. The speech from the throne later this month is a perfect opportunity for the Trudeau government to begin the process of this crucial reform.
Michael J. Prince is Lansdowne Professor of Social Policy at the University of Victoria and was a member of the COVID-19 Disability Advisory Group to Minister Carla Qualtrough.