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Advocates worry federal disability benefit program won't be fully funded in upcoming budget

Bobby Giles, who receives provincial disability support payments, says a federal top-up payment would allow him the financial freedom to choose his preferred type of milk.  (Clara Pasieka/CBC - image credit)
Bobby Giles, who receives provincial disability support payments, says a federal top-up payment would allow him the financial freedom to choose his preferred type of milk. (Clara Pasieka/CBC - image credit)

A coalition of anti-poverty and disability groups are calling on the federal government to honour its commitment to bring the incomes of all provincial disability support program recipients above the poverty line by fully funding a new federal disability benefit program.

Many advocates who cheered on Bill C-22 are now concerned the benefit still won't receive the funding it needs in the 2024 federal budget to make a real difference in the lives of people with disabilities.

Bobby Giles, who is living with schizophrenia and a foot condition that prevents him from working, is one of them.

The Toronto man currently relies on $1,382 from the Ontario Disability Support Program, a $113 special diet top-up because he is diabetic, a supportive church community and food banks to get by, leaving him little financial freedom to meet basic life needs and wants.

"The system is broken," Giles said on Friday at the Daily Bread Food Bank, in Toronto's west end. "Stable funding for people with disabilities will help curb the food bank usage which is at an all time high … so many people have to choose between paying for rent and food."

Bill C-22, which passed unanimously in June, was meant to lift people like Giles out of poverty by topping up provincial support funding. But the program hasn't yet been allocated funding or been fully designed, and many are concerned the program won't receive the funding it needs this budget, which is expected to be unveiled in March or April.

Giles says funding the federal benefit property so everyone has enough would give him simple financial freedoms he doesn't have now. Asked what he'd do if he had more money each month to improve his life, he said his dreams were small.

"For me it would be lactose-free milk.… It's like seven bucks."

Benefit should be about $1,000 a month per person: advocate

Neil Hetherington, CEO of Daily Bread Food Bank — an organization leading the charge, says bringing the incomes of disability support program recipients above the poverty line means an allocation of $10 billion to $12 billion in the federal budget.

Across the country, about a million people are reliant on inadequate provincial disability benefits programs, he says.

Hetherington says the poverty line in Toronto is about $2,300 a month, so if those with disabilities get less than $1,400 a month from provincial benefits, the federal top up needs to be close to $1,000 a month.

A meeting of advocacy organizations with the Department of Finance in December didn't leave Hetherington and his colleagues assured.

Hetherington says Daily Bread and others told the Department of Finance staff that $10 billion to $12 billion was the figure needed.

"They managed our expectations. They said, 'Listen, we are talking about a federal deficit. We need to be thinking at a time of higher interest rates and the cost to service that debt.' The typical commentary that we get around austerity."

Neil Hetherington
Neil Hetherington

Neil Hetherington, CEO of Daily Bread Food Bank, says the national disability benefit would need $10 billion to $12 billion in funding to actually lift people currently receiving provincial disability benefits out of poverty. (Clara Pasieka/CBC)

He says advocates were left with the impression that people with disabilities should not expect the requested amount and that in spite of all the excitement about the program, it would not be fully funded in the budget, he said.

Federal government tight-lipped on figures

CBC Toronto asked the Department of Finance about the figures and these concerns.

Katherine Cuplinskas, press secretary to the Minister of Finance said in an email, "We cannot speculate as to what may or may not be included in the upcoming federal budget."

It is common for governments not to answer questions about specific funding allocations before the budget is introduced.

Laurent de Casanove, the press secretary for the Minister of Diversity, Inclusion and Persons with Disabilities Kamal Khera, said in a statement,"Strengthening the financial security of Canadians living with disabilities and removing the barriers to their full inclusion within our communities are key pillars of Canada's first-ever Disability Inclusion Action Plan and Accessible Canada Act."

De Casanove said the government has been speaking to many members of the disability community to ensure their perspectives shape the benefit.

"We are focused on getting the benefit to eligible Canadians as rapidly as we can," said de Casanove.

Under-funding could be costly, says advocate

Disability and anti-poverty organizations have been drumming up support from the public. As of Feb. 9, nearly 60,000 letters have been sent to politicians by Canadians who support the call to fully fund the federal disability benefit, according to Daily Bread Food Bank.

Rabia Khedr, national director of Disability Without Poverty, told CBC she is concerned the national disability benefit may be under-funded.
Rabia Khedr, national director of Disability Without Poverty, told CBC she is concerned the national disability benefit may be under-funded.

Rabia Khedr, national director of Disability Without Poverty, says she is concerned the national disability benefit may be under-funded. (CBC)

Rabia Khedr, national director of the advocacy group Disability Without Poverty, said getting people with disabilities above the poverty line is the bare minimum. Many actually face higher costs for things like assistive devices that are not fully covered or for other needs.

She's choosing to remain hopeful, but is "concerned" the government hasn't been touting full funding for the program in the upcoming budget.

"I think there will be a lot of disappointment and harm done," she said. "All the trust building,… it's going to be undermined with an insufficient amount. And it's actually going to exacerbate people's health and well-being, who are struggling right now."

She says the government should consider the costs of not fully funding the program in this budget carefully.

"People are struggling. They're finding themselves in deeper and deeper poverty," she said. "People with disabilities may end up requiring more support and services through healthcare, through social services, than if they had their basic needs met."