British Columbia Premier Christy Clark says she would like to raise provincial income support for the disabled as long as such hikes are "affordable," suggesting they could be financed by economic growth linked to liquefied natural gas and trade with Asia.
Ms. Clark raised the point Monday as her government released a 10-year plan she said would make the province the most progressive place in Canada for people with disabilities.
"We should, when we can afford it, raise rates for people who live on disability," Ms. Clark told reporters following a speech to outline the Accessibility 2024 strategy, which includes the appointment of Boundary-Similkameen MLA Linda Larson as parliamentary secretary for accessibility. "We should find a way to do that. It has to be affordable. Nobody benefits when British Columbia runs into deficit or runs out of money. But we should, I believe as we can afford it. That's one of the areas of priority for new spending for us."
Ms. Clark said she did not have any specific timetable for such support increases, but they would be tied to economic growth. "This is why it's so important that we grasp the opportunity for the liquefied natural gas industry, that we focus on exports particularly to China and other Asian countries. That's how we will grow the economy. We can either shrink or we can grow. If we grow, then we will be able to afford to improve and invest in social programs."
Income support is one of the issues covered in the Accessibility 2024 program. A government overview commits to policies that include separating disability assistance from income assistance, consulting on family maintenance payments for families receiving disability and income assistance, and considering a disability assistance rate increase as the fiscal situation allows.
There are now about 106,000 people in British Columbia receiving provincial disability assistance – about one-fifth of the total number of disabled people in the province. The current maximum rate for income assistance for the disabled is $906 a month, with additional supports for health care and, for example, discounted bus passes. The government now claws back all family maintenance payments to single parents from ex-spouses – a sore point for many. This year's budget for income and disability assistance is $1.68-billion.
Michelle Mungall, the B.C. NDP critic for social development, said Ms. Clark needs to show some executive power on the issue of boosting income support for the disabled. "She's the premier. She needs to take leadership to make this happen," Ms. Mungall said.
She said the Premier appears to be testing the public appetite for anti-poverty measures, though there's a public consensus for action.
Jane Dyson, the executive director of the B.C. Coalition of People With Disabilities, said the disability benefit rate has not been raised in seven years, and the current status quo leaves many disabled British Columbians in poverty as they struggle to cover housing and food costs.
She noted that a coalition of agencies, including hers and the B.C. division of the Canadian Mental Health Association, studied the issue in 2010 and concluded a more reasonable rate would be $1,200 a month with an additional $300 rent subsidy.
Ms. Dyson, in an interview, saluted the Clark government for its consultation on Accessibility 2024, saying it was above and beyond what the Liberal government has done previously or the NDP government accomplished before that.
But she said it is unclear what benchmark the B.C. Liberal government is using to determine when it might be able to follow up on the premier's comments on provincial income support for the disabled. While that is sorted out and the provincial Liberals wait for the benefits from LNG and other strategies, action is required, she said.
"You have to provide enough money for people who need state support so they can live with dignity and independence," Ms. Dyson said. "Living on $906 a month is not enough to allow them to do that."