With the rollout of the Canada Disability Benefit believed to still be a year and a half away, social-assistance recipients and advocates are calling for emergency interim support from the federal government.
Jeffrey Salisbury, 39, has received assistance through the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) for more than a decade. But in the midst of a housing and affordability crisis, he is finding it more and more difficult to get through each month.
As a single adult struggling with developmental disability, depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder, he receives $1,306 a month, which is hundreds less than the average monthly cost of a one-bedroom apartment in London, Ont., where he lives. Mr. Salisbury lives with his parents, paying them $600 a month in rent. Without them, he says, he doesn’t know what he’d do.
Mr. Salisbury said he relies on a food bank almost every month. “And they’re already overloaded because even regular people are having trouble now affording food.”
Mr. Salisbury has hope that the Canada Disability Benefit – which is meant to be a top-up to existing provincial benefits – will improve his quality of life.
But although Parliament passed legislation in June to create the benefit, more than three years after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to do so, the government has indicated the rollout won’t begin until December, 2024. For Mr. Salisbury, that feels like a lifetime to wait.
He has launched a petition, calling on the government to provide emergency relief to people with disabilities in the meantime.
Mr. Salisbury points to the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) program, which was quickly established during the pandemic, providing recipients with $2,000 a month.
“What they told everybody was this was the minimum amount you had to be getting to be considered to be livable,” Mr. Salisbury said. “No disability program in the country is giving that.”
The newly appointed Minister of Diversity, Inclusion and Persons with Disabilities, Kamal Khera – who took over the file from Carla Qualtrough in the last cabinet shuffle – said in a statement that she is “focused on getting the CDB up and running as soon as possible.”
Ms. Khera said they are now beginning engagement around the design of the regulations, which will include aspects such as the benefit amount and eligibility criteria.
Roughly one in five Canadians – or 6.2 million people – live with a physical, developmental or psychiatric disability. Forty per cent of Canadians living in poverty have a disability.
Income-assistance programs for people with disabilities vary greatly across the country. But they are consistent in their inadequacy, advocates say.
“In pretty much every single province across Canada, people who are receiving social assistance are living below the poverty line,” said Elizabeth McIsaac, president of anti-poverty think tank Maytree, which publishes an annual Welfare in Canada report. “And with the exception of a couple of provinces, many are living below the threshold of deep poverty.”
Comparable programs such as the Canada Child Benefit and the Guaranteed Income Supplement for seniors have made headway in relieving poverty rates in those populations, she said. “We need to do something meaningful around people with disabilities as one of the most vulnerable groups.”
Engagement is a critical part of the process, and it will take time to ensure it is done meaningfully. But if the benefit doesn’t find its way into the 2024 budget, she said, “then there should be consideration of an interim measure.”
“The crunch on people’s budgets is extreme,” she said. “Some relief as a gesture of ‘more to come’ would be great.”
Talia Bronstein, vice-president of advocacy and research for the Daily Bread Food Bank in Toronto, said close to half of food-bank clients in Toronto have a disability.
Inadequate assistance rates, she said, are legislating people with disabilities to live in poverty, especially in cities as expensive as Toronto.
“Food-bank visits are rising so rapidly. With food inflation, with the rising cost of rent, people with disabilities are just falling further and further behind,” she said. “And so we need action – we needed action yesterday.”
Rabia Khedr, the national director of Disability Without Poverty and chief executive of DEEN Support Services, said the change in ministers and the recent marching orders to ministers to find budget cuts make their advocacy work harder.
They had an “excellent relationship” with Ms. Qualtrough – and they are expecting an equally positive one with Ms. Khera.
“There is a looming probability of an election, and that is very uncomfortable for everybody involved, because we want to see this benefit implemented before there is any risk of change in government.”
They have called for $10-billion a year to be allocated to this benefit, in order to bring recipients across the country above the poverty line.
“That’s all people are asking for,” she said. “To be able to meet their basic needs.”