The B.C. government has announced an increase to disability rates ahead of Tuesday's budget, triggering immediate criticism from advocates who had been hoping for a larger boost.
And the Opposition NDP cast the increase – unveiled Friday amid a flurry of pre-budget spending announcements – as an attempt to dispel lingering anger over last year's budget, which increased disability rates but changed a subsidized bus-pass program, leaving many people only a few dollars ahead after the changes took effect.
Liberal Premier Christy Clark is "giving back what she took away last year," NDP social development critic Michelle Mungall said.
"The numbers speak for themselves – they're giving people what they took away, minus a toonie," she added.
On Friday, the government said disability-assistance rates would increase by $50 a month, or $600 a year, as of April 1, 2017, bringing the monthly rate for a single person on disability to $1,033, up from $983.
The increase, which the government said would cost $199-million over three years, is the second in two years.
In the 2016 budget, the government announced an increase of $77 a month to disability rates. But as part of that change, the government changed a program that had allowed people on disability to buy an annual bus pass for $45 a year. Instead, people on disability who wanted a bus pass had to pay $52 a month, cutting their increase to just $25 a month.
The government said the changes would make the system more fair and give people more choice in how they spent their money.
About 45,000 people on disability assistance, particularly those living in smaller communities, do not receive any form of transportation subsidy, the government said at the time, and the changes would level the playing field.
But there was significant public backlash, with organization such as Inclusion BC characterizing the changes as a clawback.
Since then, Inclusion BC and other groups have been pushing for increased rates, saying British Columbia is out of step with other jurisdictions and putting vulnerable people at risk.
The increase announced Friday – which works out to $1.61 a day – does nothing to change that situation, says Inclusion BC executive director Faith Bodnar.
"I'm a little gobsmacked that this [announcement] came out," Ms. Bodnar said.
"I've been part of a collaborative committee working with the minister – this was a number that we have never put forward to the minister."
In those talks, Inclusion BC had been pushing for a monthly disability rate of $1,200 a month, Ms. Bodnar said.
There was "overwhelming" public discontent over last year's changes to disability rates and the bus pass program, including petitions and rallies, Ms. Bodnar said.
By announcing the increase before the budget, the province might be hoping to avoid the kind of backlash it encountered with last year's budget, she speculated.
"I would expect the level of surprise that I have, and the feelings of betrayal that I have, are going to be reflected in the public response, especially for [persons with disabilities]," she said.
"I'm going to wait and see what is in the budget on Tuesday – maybe there's something else in there that would give me some encouragement and hope. But right now, it's hard to believe I'm a partner at a collaborative table when I see this kind of thing."
The government said the increased rates are among several changes made over the past few years to support people with disabilities, including launching a program to help single parents on income or disability assistance find work.
A recent report by the Broadbent Institute, a left-leaning think tank, said B.C.'s disability rates rank fifth of 10 provinces and that even with modest recent increases, "current income assistance rates are poverty-level rates."